I never noticed this place until I was seeking an open restaurant for an early New Year's Day dinner. The cool blue lighting and somewhat industrial exterior caught my eye... The place was quiet at 6:00, but grew very busy by 7:30. The table was quite small for the elaborate plates, but thankfully we could put our feet on the ground while eating.
Misfit Roll: pieces of deep fried soft shell crab nestled among the usual rice vermicelli with cilantro and mint; sliced into 8 pieces standing on end, the four shorter pieces were sprinkled with fried shallots. The four tiny dots of sriracha sauce were not enough to enliven the mild fish-sauce based dipping liquid. Fortunately, there was a slightly above average mintiness, or I would declare them too boring. (Still, for some people, they would be too boring.)
XANH Salad: a very large salad of mixed green, tasty pieces (of rather variable size) of cold, marinated beef, slivers of sweet apple and pinches of avocado, with an excellent neutral dressing that let all of the ingredients shine. The salad is served on large "rice crackers" that are a bit of a waste of calories to eat (and definitely do not refrigerate well). While this is a rather expensive salad at $11, it is huge: we took a third of it home because it threatened to be a meal in itself.
Catfish in a clay pot: a generous number of fried (slightly dry) filets of catfish swimming in a thick, smooth, liquidy sauce that seemed to have a "tomato soup" aftertaste. After a few bites, you notice the heat coming on... rice definitely was helpful here. I'm not sure I like this dish, the sauce seemed more like a gravy than like caramelized pan juices, but we managed to finish it anyway.
Lucky egg noodles: a vertical presentation with a band of impractically long bok choy stems raising a handful of shrimp and chicken chunks to a commanding height above a nest of crispy fried noodles. Our server assisted by breaking up the next and mixing up the ingredients, but the thickness and firmness of the noodle nest detracted a bit from the experience. Hong Kong-style chow mein noodles would have offered a more enjoyable crunching sensation. The gravy was fairly bland, but that provided a good contrast with the catfish.
The coconut rice did not have as much depth of flavor as the one served at Rangoon, but had reasonably good texture.
I don't eat at Tamarine or Three Seasons very often, but XANH strikes me as a strong competitor, well worth checking out.
i'm glad xanh got a mention. i have a friend who swears that none of the dishes she tasted had any flavor, and i think she must have gone on a seriously off night. i loved the shrimp clouds and the shaking beef (which are much better than three seasons and a bit better than tamarine in pa). i also recommend the tuna tartare which is good and different.
service is not all the way up there yet and it's definitely not as comfortable a restaurant as three seasons or tamarine (the other nouveau vietnamese places nearby).
Okay, here's the scoop. We stuck to JoyM and KathyM's excellent advice and shared:
papaya salad, shrimp clouds, full moon wraps, shaking beef, and a side each of coconut rice and green beens. We also finished a traditional Vietnamese hazelnut mousse and had two non-alcoholic drinks. The wine list was decent, and judging by the next table, the pours were very generous.
Service was very attentive, although the high tables in the window are small for the giant plates. Portions are big, although I thought the prices for the shrimp clouds and full moon wraps were a little high.
Papaya salad was delicious--as promised, on a par with Bodega Bistro. It included ample shrimp and slices of mango, and a simple sweet vinegar sauce, with a spoon of chili sauce on the side.
Shrimp clouds were yummy. I'm not sure about the popover part. The full moon wraps are a great idea--miniature round banh xeo, essentially a giant leaf of butter lettuce with a crepe and a shrimp inside and small sticks of green apple. I didn't like the sauce served with them much.
Shaking beef was quite good; I still like the salts and lime served on them at Mangosteen better, but this version had a lot of flavor and included a generous bed of greens.
The green beans were disappointing. We didn't finish them. Coconut rice was also poor. I was hoping for something like the coconut rice at Rangoon in Palo Alto.
Total came to $94, so not cheap. (We spent less than this last time I was at Bodega Bistro for three, with at least a glass or two of wine). I would happily return again.
Definitely order the crispy shrimp clouds, the full-moon wraps and the sea bass. I also like the shaking beef and spicy & sour soup. For salads, I like the grapefruit salad or the papaya salad.
Resist the urge to try one of the rolls no matter how great they look. Throughout various visits, I have tried 4 different ones and have always been disappointed. All my fellow diners also concur. Although the combinations of ingredients of the rolls sound exciting and the quality top notch, the flavors don't shine. I think it may have to do with not enough herbs.
I would also not recommend the ahi tuna tartare or the angry crab which is quite expensive at $30 for the size (although it tastes good).
This place is so frustrating close to being a great restaurant. I really like this place and I wish they would bring it up to its full potential by being slightly less safe/less sublety (e.g. more citrus in the nuoc cham, more herbs in the rolls, more garlic, etc.)
I've eaten at Xanh twice and really enjoyed it. I **love** their papaya salad (e.g., it's even better than Bodega Bistro's IMO). They have all sorts of rolls -- those Vietnamese appetizers which usually have cold noodles, shrimp and pork -- with all kinds of goodies in them.
Without looking at the menu, I can't remember what else I ate, but I do remember being happy with everything.
I was surprised that this restaurant was so good -- I don't usually like "trendy-looking" places, and I think the decor is kind of silly, and I hate the high chairs. However, the food's great, and if I were in MV more often I'd eat there a lot.