Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Dish on Dining: Vanessa’s Bistro

A Twist on Vietnamese Dining
1715 Solano Ave., Berkeley
Solano Avenue neighborhood
PH: 510.525.8300
Lunch, Thu. and Fri., noon–2:30 p.m.; dinner from 4 p.m. daily except Tuesday
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

During my Mom’s visit, we did break from our parade of Chinese restaurants to try Vanessa’s Bistro in the Solano Avenue business district in Berkeley. I usually can convince her to try something like Vietnamese because it’s still in the general Asian-food-with-rice family.

Vanessa’s has been open for awhile, and has created a buzz for its home-style Vietnamese dishes served tapas style (or small plates). Vanessa’s is also a mom-and-daughter establishment with Vanessa’s mom generally working the kitchen (although she wasn’t behind the stove the night we dined).

The dining room is contemporary with Vietnamese touches, but I was surprised to find that the seating area for regular diners seemed to be dwarfed by the huge bar and outdoor seating in front. Still, we got a table for four along the side (my sister who was traveling with my mom and my nephew’s girlfriend rounded out the party).

The menu offers bits of familiar Vietnamese dishes like shaking beef but in small portions and with added ingredients to put Vanessa’s creative touch to them. We decided to order a few dishes to eat family style, which seemed like a good idea. But turns out that some of the dishes were too small to share among four people. You’ll see what I mean.

We started with an heirloom tomato salad ($7) that was one of the specials of the night. The heirloom tomatoes, which were meaty and fresh, were buried by a mountain of crumbled cheese. Still, the salad (which also included artichoke hearts) was something my sister and I craved after days of dining out.

The Salt and Pepper Fried Calamari ($8) also came buried under a pile of sautéed vegetables. (Not sure what it is about Vanessa’s presentation but she seems to hide the main ingredient.) This dish, which came in a cute bamboo steamer, was mostly for my Mom, who loves fried foods. I tried one just to see what it was like, and while the calamari looked pale rather than golden brown, it was tender. My Mom really liked the preparation.

Another starter was the Tuna and Salmon Poke ($9), which I’m sure my sister ordered because she wanted a feel of home (they live in Hawaii). The raw tuna and salmon were mixed with avocado and mango chunks and served with a ginger-tomato salsa. I thought everything worked nicely together, and liked the added twist of mango to what is typically tuna tartar at other restaurants.

Some of our meat dishes (which still came as small plates) included the Maple Leaf Duck Confit Lettuce Wraps ($9). The tender duck pieces were buried once again in crushed peanuts. We grabbed them and wrapped them in the lettuce leaves with a piece of basil, then dipped the wrap in the accompanying fish sauce concoction. The duck was tender and the flavors were light and fresh.

The Claypot with Chicken and Prawns ($10) was OK, but I didn’t feel the flavors of the chicken or prawns (and added bok choy and mushrooms) blended into the rice. It felt like the dish was cooked in another pot and then poured into the claypot for display, not really allowing the juices of all the ingredients to meld together.

We also ordered the Rack of Lamb ($20), which came from the specials menu. The dish was made up of two pieces of chops that were glazed. The lamb was a little on the tough side, and since there were only two pieces, it meant not everyone at the table could get a taste of the lamb (although we were polite and pretended like we couldn’t finish one chop).

We also got a side of green beans with tofu ($7) that came with a special sauce. The sauce wasn’t necessarily very special, but the dish was hearty and a nice complement to make up for the small lamb plate.

Vanessa’s offers quite a bit of desserts, so we ordered two to share at our table. One was the Banana Fosters made with rum and topped with a coconut-caramel sauce. Funny, but I don’t really recall tasting a strong coconut flavor, but when you have warm bananas with ice cream, how bad can that be?

We also ordered the special pear tart for the day. The plate, served with vanilla ice cream, looked pretty and the pear pieces were nicely lined in a pattern. But I felt the pear wasn’t tender enough.

As we ate, more people came in for dinner and the noise level became horrendous. We could barely hear ourselves, which seemed odd since the place didn’t necessarily have high ceilings. I think it’s just the acoustics of the floor arrangement or something, but it’s one of the noisiest places I’ve eaten at, and I generally can zone out the noise. (But then again I’m usually eating alone and not worrying about talking!)

In the end, though, my Mom was impressed by the food, which is saying a lot because she’s not the type that eats outside her comfort zone. So I guess Vanessa’s does offer something different when you need a change from the routine.

Single guy rating: 3.25 stars (Bits of diversity)

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

Vanessa's Bistro on Urbanspoon

Other Vietnamese dining reviews:

Rang Dong: “Vietnamese Cuisine that’s Hard to Pin Down”
Out the Door: “Dressed Up Street Food at Restaurant Prices”
Turtle Tower: “A Local Favorite Serving up Steaming Bowls of Pho”


foodhoe said...

single guy, sounds like you had a mixed experience, but at least your mom liked it! Too bad about the claypot and the tiny lamb portion sounded pretty skimpy for $20...

Carolyn Jung said...

I laughed to learn that your Mom loves fried foods, and you avoid them. Hey, Mom knows best. ;)