EDITOR'S NOTE: As of this week, we will be adding Laguna Beach to our rotating reviews. We will also be including a monthly column called All About Food, covering food-related topics. Suggestions are welcome! We are faithful devotees of Vietnamese food, and we recently became big fans of Phans 55. Tucked away in an apartment complex right off Jamboree Road in Irvine, this is the hippest and most attractive Vietnamese restaurant outside of Vietnam that we've ever come across, and the food is top notch as well.
The long, narrow, high-ceilinged room has been transformed into a sleek contemporary bistro with extravagant light fixtures made from strings of glass balls, kite-like fabric floating from the ceiling and a shiny stainless steel exposed kitchen. Opening up the space is an entire wall of floor-to-ceiling glass. The décor is chocolate and black, wood and leather.
At the suggestion of the charming and effusive Susie (owner-chef) from the category of "rolls," we ordered the seared ahi roll. We generally find Vietnamese spring rolls on the dull side. However, these were anything but. Even without sauce, the rolls were fabulous, with their clean bright flavors.
Sushi-grade tender ahi, mixed with a variety of herbs: mint, cilantro and perilla leaves, gently pickled daikon and carrot along with crunchy cucumber, green papaya and soft sweet mango created an explosion of flavor and texture in your mouth.
An extra kick was provided by the unusual sauce: wasabi mayo floating in soy vinaigrette.
The large dinner menu has an entire section called "simply noodles," which features the famous Vietnamese pho (classically, rice noodle soup with beef).
However, this is not the place to come for this dish. It's better and cheaper at neighborhood pho palaces. There are also other noodle soups and grilled or wokked meats or seafood on noodles.
Not often seen on menus is Elle's favorite, the Vietnamese crepe. Another winner, this thin rice flour pancake is folded over a filling of shrimp, chicken, mushroom and bean sprouts, served with the traditional herbs and lettuce leaves for wrapping. The parcels are then dipped in nuoc mam (rice wine vinegar, sugar, fish sauce and water). This one had chili flakes as well. It's messy but really delicious. Ask for a few extra lettuce leaves so you can make smaller packages.
More leaves, more herbs, this time with Ha noi dill fish, a delicate, sautéed white fish, similar to tilapia but more buttery. Accompaniments were rice vermicelli noodles, crispy shallots, sweet spring onions, chopped peanuts and a sweet and sour tamarind sauce. Get creative and combine the ingredients to your liking. Mix everything together or wrap more packages. Any way you choose, this salmagundi will wake up your taste buds.
The chicken curry was the only dish that didn't rock our world. The excellent yellow curry sauce was layered with flavor but the chunks of chicken breast were somewhat overcooked and bland. The chicken hadn't really absorbed any of the goodness from the sauce, but the few small slices of eggplant did. Luckily, the problem of getting the scrumptious sauce into your mouth was solved by the French connection. (The French occupation of Indochina has left its culinary mark.) Susie Phan decided that a baguette would make the perfect sponge and so instead of rice, there was bread for mopping up.
On display in a dessert case was a rainbow of brightly colored macaroons. The child in us was attracted to these bright colors and we ordered a sampler with coconut, raspberry, kumquat and pistachio. Pretty as they were, they were also pretty sweet. The individual flavors barely came through. We were much happier with their sorbets, particularly the knockout raspberry that was bursting with fruitiness.
For a smallish place, the menu is quite extensive and everything is made with the freshest and finest ingredients: certified natural meat and poultry, wild caught fish and local produce. This is one of the best Vietnamese restaurants we've been to, and that's saying a mouthful since there are so many of them in Orange County. It is also, hands down, the most visually striking.