Thursday, May 31, 2007

Dish on Dining: Xyclo Restaurant and Lounge

Peddling a Modern Take on Saigon Flavors
4218 Piedmont Ave., Oakland
Piedmont Avenue neighborhood
PH: 510.654.2681
Hours: Daily lunch, 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; daily dinner, 5–10 p.m.
Reservations accepted (restrictions on weekends only to parties of 6 or more; requires deposit)
MasterCard, VISA accepted

The two potted bamboo plants flanking the entrance to Xyclo Restaurant and Lounge set the mood as you enter this sleek Vietnamese restaurant. The contemporary interiors of light wood and white paper shades cement the ambiance of modern cool. For a moment, I thought I was trying out another new addition to the modern restaurant scene in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon.

But this is Oakland. And it’s just a 10-minute walk from my apartment.

Xyclo is a Slanted Door wannabe. With the success of SD, more and more upscale Vietnamese restaurants have been opening their doors—not just in San Francisco but in Albany, Walnut Creek and Oakland. Xyclo opened late last year on Piedmont Avenue, just a stone’s throw from the wildly popular Dopo.

I had lunch with a friend soon after Xyclo opened, enjoying the calm cool setting and its crispy rolls. I returned again recently for dinner.

The restaurant was packed, as usual, but my friend Roger was able to secure a table for us after spending some time in the lounge area, which oddly enough is hidden in the back of the L shaped space. (This means you often have to stroll past the tables of happy eaters as you head to the lounge to wait for a table.) But for us, we were seated and ready to dine.
Xyclo’s executive chef Vy Lieou, who worked at Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio, has created a menu that honors the traditional dishes of Vietnam but adds a California flair. Several of the dishes are served almost tapas-style, so there’s a small- and large-plate sections on the menu.

When I had lunch at Xyclo, my friend and I ordered the sampler plate of crispy rolls. This was a lot of rolls for two people, and while they were all perfectly fried, the taste between each one was very subtle. So I suggested to Roger that we skip gorging on the sampler and instead ordered just one order of the Crispy Shrimp Rolls. I also ordered the Sweet and Sour Soup to start because I enjoyed discovering this soup on my Saigon trip earlier this year (it’s not the Chinese version of hot and sour soup).

The crispy shrimp rolls were perfectly fried, like how I remembered. But the filling seemed a bit more dense than before, almost like it was filled with shrimp paste instead of grounded shrimp and taro. Still, it was a light start to dinner.

Here is where I’m going to talk about the service. Yes, it was packed and busy. But the restaurant has been open for almost a year, so you’d think they’d have a better handle of its front room operations. While the waitress who took our order was very pleasant, calm and professional, the kitchen seemed a bit overwhelmed and our orders came in an odd procession, in my opinion. (Roger was too nice to really care, or maybe he was too sippy on sake. ;-)

So after the crispy shrimp rolls, a woman from the kitchen brought out one of our entrees, the Xyclo Chili Ribs (that actually looked like huge blocks of sesame-covered bricks). Then that was followed by a side dish of spicy green beans. (And remember the sweet and sour soup I wanted to start with? You weren’t the only one. The kitchen didn’t remember it either.)

The ribs were crispy and tasty, but it looked so blackened that it bordered on unappetizing. Also a bit blackened was the Flaming Quail (although looking back, the word “flaming” should have been a giveaway). Just like the ribs, the quail was a bit difficult to eat and unattractive on the plate, but the taste was acceptable.

The highlight of the dinner was the Claypot Rice Medley, a pure comfort food dish filled with vegetables, chicken and prawns melding altogether with the rice. I would come again by myself just to order the claypot for dinner, and that would be all I need to feel full.

Of course, after all these dishes were brought out, that’s when the kitchen sent out my starter, the Sweet and Sour Dill Soup. I wished I noticed the word dill in the name because it was true to its name. The bowl was swimming in dill and that was the prominent taste with just a bit of sourness from the two chunks of pineapple floating amidst the greenery. The soup countered the old saying “they saved the best for last.”

Soon after the soup came out, so followed our bill—without us even asking for it. (And it wasn’t like the place was getting more crowded as the night went on, but apparently they felt the need to get us moving without even offering us a look at the dessert menu.)

Overall, Xyclo is a handsome room and a nice addition to the primarily Italian-influenced restaurants on Piedmont Avenue. But as a Slanted Door-wannabe, it lacks in sophistication and taste. Like I said, I’ll probably come back for the claypot medley and crispy rolls, but not much more.

Single guy rating: 2 stars (perfect for new diners moving beyond pho)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner


Anonymous said...

Hey, I thought you don't eat fried food.

Single Guy Ben said...

See what I do for you all, I even subject myself to fried food. ;-) In general, I don't believe in fried food and I don't eat it regularly (nor do I cook it at home). But when doing reviews, if something fried is the specialty of the house, then I will at least try it.

Because I'm not a fan of fried food, when I say something fried is good, then you know it must be above average for even me to like it. :)