A painting transforming the limestone karst towers that jut out of Vietnam's Halong Bay into a red and yellow fever dream hangs on the wall of an Eagle Rock restaurant named for the bay. A fountain in the center of the dining room tries to evoke the sound of water slapping on the massive spires, but mainly serves to lure toddlers who really, really want to splash their hands through the falling streams.
Bathing toddler notwithstanding, Halong Bay is a quiet eatery with clean lines and a beckoning menu of French and Vietnamese cuisines. Sister to Lemongrass next door, Halong Bay offers a more upscale interior and menu. (Though if you're just looking for a bowl of pho and jasmine iced tea, eating at Lemongrass will get you the same meal for a couple of bucks less.)
The Halong Bay roll, a spring roll of lettuce and roasted pork with carrot, basil and cucumber wrapped in rice paper, comes with a warm, complex sauce. The Vungtau egg rolls, though, were the winner, with crispy rolls of taro, pork, glass noodles, mushroom and yam served with a delicious fish sauce with hints of lime and chile.
Of course we tried the chicken pho, a vast pot of sweet, spiced broth with noodles, chicken and all the accouterments on the side. Have you ever seen anyone finish a bowl of pho? Is it even possible? Would the human body succumb to intensive broth-poisoning first? The dish was everything pho should be — comforting, warming, salty with a hint of sweetness and the bite of the jalapeños you toss into the broth like little life-saver rings.
Poisson is a fillet of flaky fish mixed with tomatoes, green onion, mushroom, black bean sauce, ginger, chile and basil, placed on a fantastic, custardy pillow of tofu and wrapped in a banana leaf. It was buttery, subtle, with a somewhat understated spicing in which no element overwhelmed another. Truly a “French” treatment of Vietnamese flavor — savory, balanced and nuanced.
Tom Chien Gion —, whole, shell-on shrimp sauteed in fried garlic onion, chile and five spices — was at once sweet, savory, a bit bitter and brilliantly garlicky. Order this only if you consider garlic a vegetable and can afford to have it seeping from your pores the following day.
Cari, a shrimp or seafood curry with coconut milk, bamboo, mushrooms, baby corn, carrot and tofu, tasted of ginger and orange and was offered with rice or French bread. We sopped ours up with rice and scraped the bowl for the last bits of rich coconuty curry heat.
XO Bo is the reason we'll return to Halong Bay. Tender chunks of filet mignon are sauteed in a hoison peanut sauce with a spice that slowly sneaks up on you. First bite: That's not spicy at all. Fifth bite: Oh, I feel it now. Sixteenth bite: Could I have some more passion fruit juice? Now? Bathed in the sauce with the beef are green beans, cashews, carrots and a bit of basil. Pity the person who orders this dish, because they're going to be under siege with other diners' forks and chopsticks. Oh, and the red-tinged sauce perfectly matched one particular hue in that painting of Halong Bay.
REBECCA BRYANT is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and Caribbean Travel & Life.
Halong Bay, 1948 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock; appetizers and salads range from $6 to $9, and entrees from $9 to $15; (323) 258-2618.