What's New: 2009 Michelin guide: Stars rise and fall -Amanda Gold
A stack of the new 2009 Michelin guides - San Francisco's third edition - was unveiled beneath the dome of a glass cake plate on Monday morning, as Michelin global director Jean-Luc Naret addressed a small crowd of media and industry onlookers.
Out of the 383 restaurants in the guide, only about 10 percent (32) were awarded star ratings. There were no huge surprises - the French Laundry remains the only highly coveted three-star recipient - but a few new spots earned a Michelin star or two. Coi - Daniel Patterson's San Francisco restaurant that earlier this year earned four stars (the top rating) from The Chronicle - was the only new addition to the two-star group, joining Aqua and Michael Mina in San Francisco; Cyrus in Healdsburg; Manresa in Los Gatos; and the Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena.
Murray Circle in Sausalito, Plumed Horse in Saratoga and the Village Pub in Woodside are newcomers to the one-star category.
A few spots fell in the ratings as well. Chez TJ in Mountain View dropped from two stars to one, and K&L Bistro in Sebastopol lost its single star. In Napa County, La Toque lost its single star as well, but it has moved and is 'just settling in' to its new location, the guide says. San Francisco's Quince also lost its star, perhaps due to its upcoming move; all three places are still recommended by the guide.
With 56 restaurants priced at $25 and under per meal - two courses and a glass of wine - and 55 falling into the Bib Gourmand category (the same deal for under $40), Naret feels that this year's guide offers plenty of options for price-conscious diners.
'People are still eating out,' he says, 'but they're going to be more selective about dining choices. This just shows that you can eat well anywhere you go, at any range.'
Some of these better-value restaurants include A16, Bar Tartine, South Park Cafe, Incanto and Mamacita, all in San Francisco; Xanh in Mountain View; and Cook in St. Helena.
Fuse Control - Mountain View's Xanh is part of a boundary-pushing new trend in Vietnamese fusion -Stett Holbrook
MOUNTAIN VIEW'S Xanh restaurant epitomizes the new breed of upscale, contemporary Vietnamese restaurants popping up across Silicon Valley. Although few in number relative to the many low-rent pho shops and banh mi joints, these modern Vietnamese restaurants are developing into a restaurant category all their own. Borrowing techniques and ingredients from the West while showcasing traditional Vietnamese dishes in stylish dining rooms backed by cool beats and lively bar scenes, these places are pushing boundaries like no other 'ethnic' restaurants in the South Bay.
While the fusion of East and West doesn't always make sense on the plate, these restaurants represent some of Silicon Valley's most dynamic dining. Culinary traditions are being rewritten. Rules are being broken. Which is only natural given Vietnamese food's receptivity to other food cultures.
Even before Vietnamese food came to America on the wave of immigration in the early 1980s, the cuisine had already borrowed liberally from other culinary traditions like China (noodles, bean curd), France (baguettes, mayonnaise, coffee) and India (curries). So it's in keeping with Vietnamese food's open-door policy to continue to fuse elements of other cuisines into its repertoire. In the case of Xanh, that means ingredients like green apple, smoked salmon, chocolate and even Parmesan cheese.
In spite of some slip-ups, Xanh (pronounced 'zahn') shows promise. Xanh opened two years ago, but moved across restaurant-packed Castro Street two months ago into a bigger space that boasts a full bar and lounge that fronts sexy, multichambered dining rooms lit by soft green and blue lights. It's a great-looking place that feels more like stepping into a club than a restaurant.
The menu, which ranges from the traditional to the unconventional, has been upgraded as well. There are a host of rolls, several salads, lots of noodle dishes, small plates and full-size entrees. And there's plenty to recommend.
One of my favorites dishes is the 'ankle biters' ($19), eight shell-on stir-fried prawns wearing a salty, spicy crust and tossed with garlic, onion, chiles and lemon leaves. Although some of the vegetables were staggeringly salty, the flavor of the piquant spices combined with the juicy, peel-and-eat crustaceans were great.
Bun thit nuong ($12) is a classic that gets an update here. Available with beef, pork, chicken, shrimp or catfish, the dish of tangy rice noodles topped with fresh herbs and vegetables is tossed tableside. While the noodles themselves were nothing special, the lemon-grass-spiked pork was wonderfully charred and juicy and loaded with bright, aromatic flavors.
I also loved the 'crispy shrimp clouds' ($10–$12), little light-as-a-cotton-ball rice flour muffins filled with diced shrimp, tart sliced green apples and mint and served with nuoc cham, a sweet-and-sour fish sauce–based vinaigrette. It's a beautiful and delicious dish that's perfect for sharing.
Another great riff on a classic is the 'full moon wraps' ($14). Unlike the big, turmeric-infused rice flour crepes called banh xeo from which the dish gets its inspiration, Xanh's are served open-faced and not much bigger than a silver dollar. They're topped with shrimp, bean sprouts, sliced mango, sliced onions and a tangle of fresh herbs. The crepes are set atop dewy leaves of butter lettuce and the idea is to pop the whole thing in your mouth. And it's a good idea, too. With a dribble of nuoc cham or peanut sauce, the whole package bursts with sweet, salty, sour and spicy flavors all at once.
And don't overlook the eggplant ($8), a side dish that combines delicately steamed eggplant with ground chicken, shrimp flakes, peanuts and green onions. The long and skinny dish it's served on is a sight to behold, too.
Spring rolls are one of the most recognizable and beloved of Vietnamese foods. The fresh, brightly flavored rice-paper rolls are like hand-held salads and are typically stuffed with pork and/or shrimp. Xanh takes them into new territory with a long list of eclectic rolls that include things like ahi and mango, catfish and pineapple, soft-shell crab and marinated beef. To establish a baseline, I started with the 'traditional roll' ($9), a combination of poached shrimp, pork, rice noodles, cilantro, mint and sliced green apple, a not-so-traditional ingredient. Dipped into the sweetish nuoc cham, it's clean and lively tasting but not much different from what you'd find at a humble mom-and-pop Vietnamese restaurant for half the cost. You're better off going for the more exotic rolls, such as the 'rolling duck' ($10), a meaty roll made with Peking-style duck and mango.
Green papaya salad ($10) is another Vietnamese standard, but unfortunately it's substandard here. Loaded with strands of papaya, carrots, sliced mango, cilantro, mint and fat-poached shrimps, I thought it would be bursting with flavor, but it was strangely dull. The shrimp were fresh and sweet, but dousing the salad with nuoc cham failed to perk it up.
Pho ($10) is probably the best-known Vietnamese dish, but it falls short here. The broth of the beef noodle soup is oddly flat and lacks the multilayered flavors of star anise and slow-simmered beef bones that make this soup so good. The braised sirloin in the soup was mushy, too.
Peppercorn beef ($18) fully crossed the line from East to West. Thin slices of tender filet mignon are served with a mild, faintly sweet gravylike peppercorn sauce and served with a jumble of potatoes, asparagus and red and green bell peppers. It's good, but seems more appropriate for a Hungry Hunter than an upscale Vietnamese restaurant.
Desserts are the weakest part of the menu. The multilayered hazelnut mousse, served under a glass dome that's removed with a flourish, is decent but not as spectacular as the presentation suggests. The '8th wonder' ($8), a pyramid of chocolate mousse dusted with cocoa powder with a center of caramel, is pretty good. Skip the 'ménage a trios' ($8), a visually striking, deconstructed version of a classic dessert that combines tapioca pearls, sweet mung beans and iced coconut milk. The trio of desserts looked cool, but the gummy tapioca and chewy mung beans were redundant and hard to eat.
Servers, clad in black and wearing bright silver 'Xanh' belt buckles, are generally friendly and efficient, but the staff is still feeling its way. On one visit an entree went missing. Then our wine failed to show up. While we were waiting for the entree, we were informed the kitchen had closed. After a long wait, food and wine were delivered with apologies and the entree and desserts generously removed from the bill.
Through it all though, Xanh is still an exciting place to eat. For newcomers to Vietnamese food it's a less than traditional introduction to Vietnamese food but still solidly Vietnamese in spirit and execution. For those already versed in Vietnamese food, Xanh offers the chance to witness culinary boundary crossing with results that are often delicious.
Artful expressions of Vietnamese fare -Aleta Watson
The towering arrangement of green bamboo stalks and brilliant red flowers in the entry is a taste of things to come at Xanh, a contemporary Vietnamese restaurant in downtown Mountain View.
Dinner here is as much a treat for the eyes as for the palate. Every dish comes plated with an artistic sensibility that reflects owner Thuy Pham's training as a pastry chef.
If the architectural reconstructions of traditional Vietnamese dishes don't always measure up to the originals in flavor, few diners seem to notice. This stylish 65-seat cafe thrums with the buzz of animated conversation.
Service, though, definitely needs polish. Hip, black-clad servers are pleasant, but they deliver dishes helter-skelter whenever they're ready, without regard for pacing. Then they crowd the plates precariously onto the small tables, leaving you searching for a place to set down your wine glass.
At one dinner, two servers tried to deliver a crab martini that neither my companion nor I had ordered. The first was reluctant to accept our assurances that we had not ordered the dish, insisting, 'I think you did.' A few moments later, the second arrived bearing the same appetizer.
Xanh, pronounced 'sun,' celebrated its first anniversary last month. It's a family operation. Pham, who emigrated from Vietnam nearly three decades ago, heads the kitchen. Daughters Jade Pham and Amanda Pham-Huynh, both lawyers, run the front of the house.
Xanh can be translated as blue
Where trend meets tradition - Xanh reinterprets Vietnamese cuisine for Northern California -Elaine M. Rowland
It's easy to get caught up in the excitement of a premiere: being the first to try the new, new thing. But bragging rights aside, opening night at a restaurant can be awkward, as timing issues (among others) beset any new production trying to find its rhythm.
That's why many publications won't review a restaurant until it's been operating a few months. Well, after three months, it looks like Xanh Vietnamese fusion restaurant on Castro Street is in for a good, long run: The food's delicious, and diners are still filling tables on weekends and weeknights.
And while the timing here needs a little more fine-tuning, that's the worst that can be said of my experience at Xanh.
Xanh (when spoken correctly, its pronunciation resembles 'sun') means 'blue' or 'green' in Vietnamese. The theme is reiterated in the blue and green painted walls, the fresh greens on the plates, and in the blue neon under mirrors, which help open up the compact space. Probably the hippest place to eat on Castro, it has the funky lighting, cool color scheme, eye-catching waiter wear (low-rider silver belt buckles beaming XANH in club kid fashion), and arty right-angle plates and platters of an L.A. or Chelsea restaurant.
Despite the modern visuals, you'll find some very recognizable Vietnamese combinations such as the cilantro, mint and pork of the traditional roll. The roll embraces the fusion spirit with gusto: These rice paper-wrapped spring rolls are sliced and stood on-end to resemble Japanese sushi rolls, with tufts of green apple and lettuce poking out above the pork and shrimp. A lemony nuoc cham vinaigrette on the side doesn't overpower the roll with fish flavor.
The Xanh roll is fried, but lighter and much less greasy than a typical egg roll, with chicken, shrimp, cellophane noodles and mint, and served with the mild vinaigrette. It's available as small plates with two or four pieces ($6 or $9).
I ordered the Korean-style pineapple BBQ short ribs ($13), which the menu says is served with a slaw of bean sprouts, carrots, chives and bell peppers. Well, the ingredients appeared to be all there, but it wasn't a slaw in the traditional sense Ñ more like strata of sliced vegetables. The beef was tender and sweet, but not too sweet, so I tried it with a none-too-shy Beaulieu Vineyard Cabernet.
I thought the wine went better, however, with the Xanh banana leaf sea bass ($19), which wasn't sweet. The bass' firm flesh was surprisingly savory, maybe because of the dish's shiitakes and onions. It was also, hands-down, the best-looking dish of the night, arriving in a bamboo box, gracefully tucked into a banana leaf.
Now, if only we'd had some rice with that. ... Not only did we have to wait for the rice (patrons can chose between plain white or shaved-coconut-and-jasmine, which goes well with certain dishes), but we had to wait for the second entree, as well. Personally, I prefer that the rice arrive slightly before or with an entrŽe, instead of after it's cooled a bit.
The dessert menu doesn't currently offer traditional Vietnamese goodies, but we got over the pain of disappointment and marched right into the hazelnut dessert ($7), a mousse on a bed of chocolate sponge cake and ground nuts. A fine combination. If you want something lighter, the 'split personality sorbet' is very refreshing, and looks not unlike a peach when you break through the outer, white-chocolate shell to reveal the perky passion fruit and raspberry sorbet center.
Starting our next dinner with the papaya salad ($9), we found ourselves faced with a hillock of daikon radish (cu cai trang), papaya, mango, mint, cilantro, and roasted peanuts, surrounded by poached shrimp. Catfish in a clay pot ($13) reminded me of something I couldn't place, but a few bites later I figured it out: etouffŽe. There don't seem to be a lot of ingredients in common between this and etouffŽe, but the dish was rich and complex, and the catfish prepared perfectly.
Shaking beef is available in two sizes, for $18 or $22. It's garlicky filet mignon cubes on a mix of spring greens and spinach, served with a lime vinaigrette. It was tender and I definitely recommend it, but waiting for the rice to arrive while the beef cooled was annoying.
Although the portions are such that an appetizer and an entrŽe with rice, left each of us comfortably full, it's my duty to review, so I soldiered on through dessert once again. This time I tried the Pina Colada Gelato ($7), a creamy, tropical frozen dessert with chocolate bits on top and what tasted like candied pineapple on the bottom. I liked the top better, but coconut fans won't be disappointed.
Co-proprietor, executive chef and Vietnam native Thuy Pham has created a menu of both new and familiar flavors that passes over some mainstays of Vietnamese cuisine in favor of light, fresh additions reflecting many influences Ñ all well-suited to Northern California's ingredients and climate.
The food is carefully prepared and very appealingly presented in this smart, casual, and thoroughly modern setting. The restaurant welcomes children, but with its tight space, squirmy diners (as well as long-legged diners and those preferring quieter conversation) might be happier at the sidewalk tables out front.
Dining Update: Mountain View's Xanh rolls out edgy design, more dishes -Miriam Morgan, Chronicle Staff Writer
It didn't take long for Xanh to find an audience. Opened in February 2006 on Mountain View's restaurant-packed Castro Street, its sophisticated-looking and - tasting Vietnamese/Southeast Asian food quickly started drawing crowds.
Two months ago, the Pham family moved their restaurant a couple blocks down the street to a sleek new space that tripled the number of seats.
The entrance is spacious, too. A bar stretches down the length of one side of the room, with silver-upholstered benches arranged in perpendicular rows down the center, accented by dramatic lighting and a waterfall wall.
A menu of more than a dozen specialty cocktails such as the Grasshoppa ($9), a less sweet take on a mojito, along with an ample choice of wine, beer, sake and non-alcoholic fruit drinks all add up to make it a prime gathering spot for the area's young tech crowd.
The dining space is appealing, too, with stone patterns on the wall and different accent lights - blue in one room, violet in another.
It's a fitting setting for the food from executive chef Thuy Pham, who learned to cook in her native Vietnam, then polished her skills with professional training in San Francisco.
The bigger space has translated to a larger menu, including a dozen rolls, several soups and salads, noodle dishes, and small and large plates. The staff, headed by Pham's daughter, Jade Pham, knows the menu well and can help diners navigate the selections.
A recent dinner showed that the rolls are as good as ever. The grilled shrimp roll ($10/8 pieces) was tightly wrapped with thin apple slices, cilantro, mint, lettuce and cucumber to complement the shrimp, topped by a scattering of crisp shallots.
The Eskimo roll ($9/8 pieces) is another good choice, with chunks of pan-roasted catfish offset by rice noodles, fresh herbs and pieces of pineapple.
Small plates include items such as fried calamari ($13) tossed with garlic, green onion, jalapenos and basil; satays ($8); and potstickers ($9), but on our visit we headed straight to the entrees.
A dish called Duck Duck Good ($24) - slices of duck breast topping a daikon cake and baby bok choy - was well prepared and pleasant enough, although more heat in the promised spicy tamarind sauce might have better balanced an underlying sweetness.
Garlic prawns ($19) had no such drawback, the fat shrimp topped with a scattering of fried garlic and plenty of pepper. Even better were the short ribs ($14), where pineapple reappeared to complement the Korean-style barbecued ribs paired with a bean sprout slaw.
However, the sea bass ($22), beautifully wrapped in a banana leaf packet with shiitake mushrooms, ginger, onions and glass noodles, lacked texture and tasted muddled.
Things picked up again with dessert, with a Chocolate Box ($8), the shape true to its name with a square shell of chocolate encasing a chocolate mousse and cherry ganache, and the imaginative Menage a Trois ($8), a deconstructed arrangement of miniature tapioca pearls, yellow mung bean and sweet coconut milk for diners to put together themselves. It's at once spirited, slightly edgy and fun, matching Xanh's new digs.