After its heyday in the ’80s, “fusion” became a bit of a four-letter word. But it’s since made a comeback, with globally minded chefs drawing on techniques, traditions and ingredients from around the world, bringing them to an upscale audience. And there’s perhaps no better cuisine suited to fusion than Vietnamese, which is historically already a cross-cultural culinary mashup.
Remnants of the French Colonial era can be tasted in dishes like banh mi served on French baguettes, slathered with savory pate; rice flour banh xeo crepes; or even the most famous of Vietnamese mainstays—pho—whose clarified broth bears a striking resemblance to consommé. Even before the French arrived, the Chinese had a heavy influence on Vietnam’s culture and cooking too, with wontons and wheat noodles making their way into several dishes.
The hallmarks of Vietnam’s vibrant, diverse culinary culture are clean, bright flavors that are never too heavy. So it’s naturally well-suited for the health-conscious, discerning clientele of Beverly Hills, where executive chef Helene An—hailed as “The Mother of Fusion”—has run the kitchen at Crustacean restaurant for 20 years.
An’s restaurant—which has long drawn in the Hollywood elite—recently received a $10 million redesign, complete with a new menu aiming to elevate and modernize Vietnamese cuisine. But that’s not to say that it’s all about foams and barely recognizable tweezer food.
Of course, there are Crustacean classics that will never leave the menu—namely her famously addictive garlic noodles served with an entire garlic roasted crab in its shell. Originally created at her mother-in-law’s Italian restaurant in San Francisco after she emigrated in 1975, the dish is a take on pasta that was true to Vietnamese flavors and sensibilities without being labeled as such, since there were lingering postwar anti-immigrant sentiments at the time.
Now in a new era, An, or “Mama” as the kitchen endearingly calls her, has teamed up with chef Tony Nguyen, a five-year veteran of the House of An restaurant group, to breathe new life into the menu.
A great example is the beef tartare—a dish, like spicy tuna, traditionally meant to mask cheap meat—but at Crustacean, it’s made with ultra-high-end A5 wagyu. Nguyen uses toasted rice powder to tone down the gamey taste of the beef, a traditional Vietnamese method; then gives it a hit of bright citrus with a yuzu lemongrass dressing, and deep savory notes from truffle Dijon mustard; then serves it with shrimp chips instead of a toasted baguette.
There’s also a wonderful take on Shanghainese xiai long bao, here made as pho soup dumplings. Pillowy handmade dough encases a pork and chicken dumpling that then sits in a bowl of perfectly clear consommé fragrant with lemongrass, kefir and holy basil. It’s the comforting dish you just wish you could Postmates on a sick day. Or any day, really.
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