A former Bridges chef lands her own place to showcase Vietnamese small plates
Vanessa Dang, a woman who looks too well dressed to be cooking and too young to be the mother of three adult children, is the executive chef at Vanessa’s Bistro. One of her children, 27-year-old Vi Nguyen, is the restaurant’s owner. Together, the women have pulled off quite a feat: They’ve opened a restaurant on Solano Avenue—a street jam-packed with scrumptious food and picky, moneyed diners—and managed to keep the place slammed every night for five months straight.
“I have my own style,” says Dang, who immigrated to the United States from Vietnam at age 24 and, following a divorce, worked her way up in the restaurant business from the position of dishwasher. That style refers to both her unique approach in the kitchen and her presence in the dining room. “I wanted to create a place for you to hang out and to have fun with me. You can come in and enjoy conversation, not just with the people you came with. You meet people and talk with them; you feel like you’re in somebody’s house.”
Vanessa’s is indeed homey. A dozen small tables barely fit in the dining room, and the 18-seat bar is never empty. And Dang, a perfectly coiffed, coquettish host, is a constant. She chats her way through the dining room each night. By day, you’ll find her back in the kitchen making all the sauces herself. She sometimes even works the kitchen line at night, dressed in her fashionable outfits and high heels.
Dang has worked in East Bay restaurants since the early 1980s. After cooking at a Vietnamese deli, she landed a job at Le Cheval in Oakland, where she stayed for 13 years. She then spent six years as chef de cuisine under Mark Dantanavatanawong at Bridges Restaurant in Danville, an experience she credits with advancing her culinary career. (Dantanavatanawong left Bridges to open his own restaurant, Amber, but has since returned to Thailand.) “That was a fortunate time for me,” says Dang. “It was so great to work with Mark. He could read my mind and see my passion. We still remain close.”
After leaving Bridges, Dang cooked at La Rose Bistro in downtown Berkeley, where she and a partner stuck to a French menu to avoid competition with a Vietnamese restaurant on the same block. “I couldn’t cook my own food,” she recalls.
Dang is back to cooking Vietnamese fare at Vanessa’s, and it has met with approval—even cheers—from her North Berkeley customer base, who revel in small plates that lend themselves to sharing. The wine list isn’t ponderous—it fits on a single page—but the bottles are well chosen. Key wines are available by the glass, and the enthusiastic bartender is more than happy to recommend wines; he’ll even let you sample a couple to help you decide.
Vanessa’s menu bills the food as “Vietnamese tapas with a French twist.” The description seems more complicated than it needs to be, but the food that comes out of the kitchen is rarely muddled. A bit of lemongrass steeped in pumpkin bisque gives a French soup, which comes topped with buttery puff pastry and crème fraîche, the subtlest Asian accent. Paper-thin filet mignon carpaccio (bo tai chanh) delights. It is prepared in classic Vietnamese fashion with tender, cool meat; crunchy peanuts; slivered Thai basil and mint; and shallots fried to a crisp, dark golden brown. The dish seems straight from a Vietnamese cookbook until you pick up the lemon to squeeze over the top and discover the appetizer’s local touch: It’s a Meyer lemon.
Dang makes wonderful use of the East Bay’s food bounty, including sourcing authentic ingredients from Asian markets in Oakland’s Chinatown, but occasionally, ingredients fall below the bar. On our visit, steamed Manila clams were tough, and two problematic species of fish, Atlantic salmon (farmed and lackluster) and Chilean sea bass (fished to the brink of extinction) appeared on the menu.
But Dang says she changes her menu twice a month, and more often than not, her work sparkles. A chilled Dungeness crab appetizer is wonderful. The shellfish is juicy and delicate, and Dang complements the generous flakes of crab with a dice of soft, ripe avocado and a dressing with a hint of curry. Dang’s marinated rack of lamb—two juicy chops atop a small mound of mashed potatoes—arrives grilled exactly as ordered (ours was rare). The rosy meat is wonderfully tender, and her cherry reduction sauce, plated with restraint in one corner of the dish, offers a deep, dark fruity note without overpowering the meat.
At dessert, the chef’s unbeatable caramel sauce tops a delectable brioche bread pudding, and Ciao Bella gelatos, in tropical flavors such as ginger and mango, end the meal according to Dang’s winning formula: a little bit of East, a little bit of West, and a whole lot of personality.
Contact: 1715 Solano Ave., Berkeley, (510) 525-8300, www.vanessasbistro.com
Hours: Lunch Wed.–Sat., dinner Wed.–Mon.
Price: Small plates $8–$22
Alcohol: Wine and beer