After eating one too many bowls of mediocre phở around campus, I decided to go a little more out-of-the-box in my search for good Vietnamese food in Berkeley. I consulted Yelp! and was excited to see “Vietnamese tapas with a French twist” as the tagline for Vanessa’s Bistro. The overall good reviews seemed promising, and the idea of Asian tapas was mysterious and interesting.
So three friends and I made the trip to Solano Ave., about a 12 minute drive from campus. It was a pretty nice drive through the tunnel near Indian Rock and past a strip of quaint shops and restaurants. Upon arriving at Vanessa’s, my first impression was that the restaurant was cozy with a bit of a modern edge. My group was young compared to the rest of the patrons who were mostly middle-aged and older adults.
We started with an order of crispy Saigon chicken rolls that was served with lettuce, mint, pickled vegetables and spicy lime dipping sauce (aka nước mắm). Overall, the dish was tasty. The wrappings on the rolls were nice and crispy, and the veggies were really fresh; but my fellow Viet and I were disappointed with the more Vietnamese aspects of the dish—the nước mắm and pickled carrots. The nước mắm was too sweet and a little thick, while the pickled carrots were too sour and didn’t have enough flavor. A little nit-picky, yes, but these condiments are essential to support the rolls.
Next up were our entrées. The claypot rice with chicken & prawns had a subtle flavor. You could think of it as either a nice, light dish or a bland dish, depending on your mood. The grilled jumbo prawns with egg noodles and mango salsa (pictured first) was delicious. The garlic butter sauce was so good, and the ripe chunks of mango were spot on. The five spices duck confit had a nice crisp grill on the outside, and it came with an interesting mashed potato/latke hybrid. And lastly, the salmon claypot (cá kho tộ) was the most authentically Vietnamese dish we tried that night. It was cooked in the traditional style with a salty, dark, caramelized sauce. I highly recommend ordering a side of rice to offset the saltiness of the fish. I gave this dish a thumbs up because it reminded me of my mom’s cooking.
Overall, we had a pleasant evening at Vanessa’s Bistro. Our server was really friendly and courteous. The food was pretty tasty, but it was a little ambiguous. The menu ranged from Pad Thai and potstickers to a salad with feta cheese and honey crispy quail. I appreciate the concept, but with the few Vietnamese elements, I wouldn’t be first to call this place Vietnamese tapas. It’s definitely Asian fusion.
Be prepared to fork over some cash as each appetizer was around $8, and each entrée was $10-16. Pretty pricey for college students, especially considering the small portions. Vanessa’s Bistro is worth a try if you’re looking to escape the usual eateries around campus and eat something new, just don’t expect it to be very Vietnamese. The search continues.
Location: 1715 Solano Ave. Berkeley, CA 94707
Hours of operation: Wednesday – Monday 4 pm – 9 pm