Cookbook of the week: "An: To Eat: Recipes and Stories From a Vietnamese Family Kitchen" by Helene An and Jacqueline An (Running Press, $35)
There are certain places in Beverly Hills that are dining destinations in the same way that Barney's or Jimmy Choo are shopping destinations: Spago, of course, and since 1997, Crustacean, Helene An's seriously upscale Vietnamese restaurant. The An family began its restaurant empire in San Francisco in a little Italian deli that it bought after immigrating to America as refugees from the Vietnam War. They transformed that deli, as well as the family's fortunes and our understanding of Vietnamese cooking, and now Helene An and her daughters oversee five California restaurants and a catering business. To that long list of accomplishments, An and her daughter Jacqueline have added a cookbook.
"An: To Eat" is a beautifully photographed (by Evan Sung) book that combines many of Crustacean's recipes with the central story of the An family. (The name of the cookbook refers to the happy fact that the word an is not just the family name but also means "to eat" in Vietnamese.) Helene An recounts her aristocratic youth, when the family employed three cooks (one French, one Chinese and one Vietnamese), then traces the family's journey through the war years to San Francisco and to Los Angeles, and the kitchens (one public, one famously secret) in Beverly Hills. There are sections outlining basic cooking techniques and ingredients, entertaining tips, family anecdotes and photographs, as well as the history of and context for the An family's other restaurants. Thus there are recipes for both traditional and more modern dishes, comfort food and banquet food, plus plenty of cocktails and even more sauces. (The sauce chapter is alone worth the price of admission.) One thing the book does not have, however, is the recipe for Crustacean's most famous dish: the garlic noodles. This should not surprise anyone, really, because if a restaurant has a secret kitchen, as Crustacean does, then it is only fitting that it should continue to have a secret recipe. More reason to head to Beverly Hills, sit down under those thousand red paper cranes and let the chefs make your garlic noodles for you.