Tuesday, April 5, 2011

XYCLO Restaurant/Lounge - Exploring the flavors of Vietnam

Ruby Red & Inviting
If you know me, you know I love to try new things. If you read this column it’s likely become fairly obvious that I rarely turn down an opportunity to experience something new in the way of the food itself. What a delightful gift it is, that in order to maintain healthy lives, we are required to partake daily of these edible wonders, these meals that give us pleasure while sustaining us. The promise of farm-fresh produce, artisanal baked goods, marvelous proteins, or rich and creamy dairy all at once or in some lovely combination. Some days I crave the familiar — maybe a particular dish I know a restaurant faithfully maintains on its menu, or a set of established flavor profiles I know I will experience under the masterful hand of a favorite chef. While many modern restaurants possess an ever-changing menu, they can usually be counted on to have a “cravable” point of view.
There are other days when an experiment is in order. My taste buds speak to me. They say it is time to take them on an adventure. To veer off the familiar path and try something, well, different. So I will look at my list of places I can go to experience my life through eating a fine meal, and I will try to find something that I haven’t tried before. On these days a new restaurant, as opposed to merely a new dish, is often the very best of adventures. My palate craves a new flavor profile to wake it up. I answer with the unanticipated. As my mouth responds to the notion, I begin to salivate at the prospect, and the journey to discovery begins.

As it so happened, a friend of mine, the Partner’s Wife, had recently suggested I try one of her favorite restaurants, Xyclo. Xyclo is situated on Piedmont Avenue, not far from Adesso. It defines itself as serving a Modern Vietnamese Fusion, which sounded really intriguing, so at long last, I was on my way to check it out and see for myself what all the fuss was about. Chef Vy Lieou did not disappoint.

The BH and I perused the menu, and found quite a few dishes that interested us both. We began with a drink (non-alcoholic) the waitress suggested called the Raspberry Spritzer. Lovely in flavor and aspect, it was a beautiful rosy concoction, and extremely refreshing. Once we’d cleansed our palates with the fruit drink, the staff began bringing the various dishes we’d decided to try. The first was a Vietnamese Carpacchio. The BH and I had experienced Asian-style raw beef before. It is usually sliced very thin and served cured in some sort of citrus fruit juice or vinegar mixture. This version was cured only in lime juice, and flavored with fresh basil, and razor thin slices of red onion. It was absolutely delicious.

Shrimp Rolls

The next thing we tried was even more adventurous. Aptly titled Seven Elements the dish is a Vietnamese treat. If you have never tried a lettuce wrap before, and you think you don’t like things that come in green, you might want to check this one out. The job of lettuce in a “lettuce wrap” is to provide a cooling texture to fatty or spicy foods. This version was lighter than the fried rice mixture served in lettuce by the Laotians and contains seven toppings meant to be mingled and experienced in combinations of 2 or 3 at a time, or all together. The components in the dish were bits of lime with the rind attached, some delicately flavored dried shrimp, cashews, shredded coconut, minced jalapeno, fresh ginger, and fresh finely diced onion. There was also a light dipping sauce, that was very much in consistency like a home made plum sauce. I enjoyed the texture of the elements themselves together. I found the rind was initially a texture so unique and unfamiliar that it was almost too much, being both a little hard and yet unusually chewy. After a moment I gave myself over to the unfamiliarity and really began to enjoy it. It was a little like visiting a foreign country, where I would like to think I would let them show me how to eat their delicacies with an open mind. The flavors were light and springy and really quite inviting. The accompanying plum sauce had a creamy chunky texture to it that was also new to me, but I enjoyed it with the rest of the dish.

After experiencing the previous dish, we were ready for something a bit more familiar. We were rewarded with Fried Shrimp Roll a more traditional Asian fare featuring loads of hot, puffy shrimp, soft and sweet. The fresh shrimp was cooked perfectly, and so was succulent and delicious.

7 ingredient magic
 BH loves his soup. He can’t enjoy any form of Asian food without it. Occasionally I make a face and he’ll pretend to consider not ordering soup, but then I relent. It’s this little dance we do. Not that I have anything against soup really, but some days’ it’s a lot to eat with everything else. Soup kinda fills me up. Today’s version was a well-seasoned, peppery Won Ton Soup. Since every place does a Won Ton Soup, and the broth is generally a version of a chicken stock, the flavors can be underdeveloped, particularly of the broth. This soup was just the opposite. The stock flavors were complex and really well-developed. Soup needs to sit and brew, for it to really come together and this soup had been completely finessed. All the flavors blended beautifully, allowed to mature properly within the broth. Even the dumplings were plump and juicy. Just marvelous.

All in all we found the food fresh and inviting, the staff courteous and prompt, and the atmosphere homey with nice modern touches. There were loads of families with kids, so my guess is that some of the other less adventurous dishes would appeal to youngsters. Though we didn’t indulge, they have a bar. After a nice meal, the tab was also quite reasonable.

So I say, go, check it out for yourself. Bon Appetit!

4218 Piedmont Ave
(between Entrada Ave & Glenwood Ave)
Oakland, CA 94611
(510) 654-2681

Table size: adequate
Sound levels: fairly quiet
Cost: Moderately inexpensive