"Please don't call my cooking 'fusion,' " chef Haley Nguyen insists, as she assures me that the flavors of her food are those she grew up with in Vietnam.
The jewel-like beauty of the dishes at Xanh Bistro near Westminster's Little Saigon and the au courant sensibility of the restaurant's dining room suggest that some elements might be drawn from beyond the realm of traditional Vietnamese cuisine. But Nguyen, who has owned restaurants previously and also teaches classes on a variety of Asian cuisines at the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of California, insists her repertoire remains firmly within traditional borders.
Even so, her personal take on Vietnam's sophisticated cooking, her finesse in the kitchen and her insistence on quality ingredients result in dishes with a refreshing 21st century bent that are notably different from those of the popular mom-and-pop-style places that crowd Little Saigon's boulevards.
Xanh Bistro offers no stacks of sticky rice papers to peel apart and no Papa Bear-size bowls of pho noodle soup. And, instead of platters heaped with an orgy of fresh herbs, each dish is garnished with a few carefully selected choices that Nguyen feels best complement the flavors of the specific preparation.
Many of the herbs and vegetables Nguyen uses come from her network of local Vietnamese women who grow the produce in their backyards. She says her neighborly system reminds her of the days when she shopped with her grandmother, buying from micro-farmers at the open markets in Vietnam. This reliance on local fare is also the inspiration for the restaurant's name: Xanh (pronounced sahn) means "green" in Vietnamese.
Nguyen's lengthy list of appetizers and shareable salads allows you to create meals as intriguing as any found at such new experimental restaurants as Bazaar in Beverly Hills. Banana blossom salad starts with a julienne of the burgundy-colored bud, fragrant with mint. It's tossed with chunks of smoky grilled pork and shrimp before being moistened with fresh lime-cilantro dressing and showered with roasted peanuts and sesame seeds.
Another grand partner for a smaller-plates menu is the green papaya and mango salad topped with perfectly char-grilled jumbo shrimp. Pair this with rectangles of crisped rice cake mounded with paper-thin sliced grilled pork and splashed with fresh lemon-based nuoc cham sauce, or seafood and mushroom wontons partnered with the haunting flavors of an aromatic basil-laced chutney of tomato and pineapple, and you have a fabulous dinner.
The entrees and sides Nguyen offers are the types of dishes a skilled home cook might prepare for a celebratory meal rather than the quick street food and market stall fare offered by less elegant restaurants. She makes soul-satisfying soups -- kabocha squash dotted with small shrimp, for instance, and a northern-style tomato-shrimp broth poured over fish fillets and strewn with a handful of fresh snipped dill.
Bo luc lac, quickly seared beef rib-eye cubes drizzled with soy-honey pan juices, comes with crisp yam fries that hint at Nguyen's northern heritage. Kho, the traditional bittersweet caramel-fish sauce blend, is the unctuous base for braised fish fillets. Every drop of its chocolate-colored sauce inevitably disappears with spoonfuls of rice.
Fresh vegetable dishes shine: Sautéed greens or quick-grilled eggplant are brightened with aromatic purple perilla leaves (red shiso).
Xanh's desserts may seem the most obvious violation of the house no-"fusion" rule. A spectacular coconut crème brûlée or a durian parfait layered with white cake, for instance, seem to be lifted from a Parisian pâtissier's case.
But of course, the French influence has been infused into much of Vietnam's cuisine -- pâtés, baguettes and coffee drinks -- and this restaurant pays the same meticulous attention to these selections as it does to the rest of its food.
Xanh Bistro LOCATION 16161 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley (in Albertsons shopping center), (714) 531-2030. PRICE Appetizers, $5.50 to $11; large entrees, $10 to $15; individual dishes, $7 to $8; desserts, $6 to $7. BEST DISHES Crispy rice with grilled pork appetizer, rice-flake crusted shrimp, banana blossom salad, whitefish in caramel-pepper reduction, lemon grass beef noodle bowl. DETAILS Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday. Lot parking. Visa and MasterCard.