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Huynh

Walnut Creek’s newest restaurant offers authentic Vietnamese cuisine in splendid surroundings



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www.mitchtobias.com

AS LOYAL as we might be to our neighborhood hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurant, the bright flavors and bold colors of this cuisine beg for the chance to shine in a fine dining setting. Shine they do at Huynh (pronounced huEN), a recently opened restaurant in Walnut Creek that’s been busy since day one.

Happily, Huynh avoids the misguided attempts at fusion that are the downfall of many an upscale Asian restaurant. Huynh serves flavorful food in a setting that feels special enough for a birthday or anniversary—but don’t wait for a special occasion to go.

The story of owners Kim Huynh and her husband, Hung Tran, who met in Vietnam in 1992 and then came to the Bay Area, is a fairly typical restaurant success story. They taught themselves to prepare classic Vietnamese dishes by working in others’ restaurants and saved enough money to open their own small place in downtown Oakland in 1997. Less typical is how business at Huynh in Oakland boomed, allowing the couple to expand into the space next door.

The Walnut Creek Huynh is tucked away on a quiet block of Locust Street, and the restaurant’s designers worked miracles on the small, unremarkable space. Two fountains full of glossy black pebbles account for the nearly imperceptible sound of trickling water. Backlit silk panels hang on one wall. The carpet has a subtle pattern that looks like rippling water. Silk-clad servers moving quietly do nothing to dispel the mood of peace and calm. It’s an atmosphere that suggests care and pampering.

“It’s definitely part of my aunt’s philosophy to make sure everyone gets everything they need,” says Huynh’s nephew, Cuong Le, who manages the Walnut Creek restaurant. “Sometimes it gets crowded, but we try our best to make sure everyone leaves feeling happy.”

On my visit to Huynh with my husband, I found that the same quiet care is given to the food, with pleasing results. Crisp lettuce, aromatic herbs, and plump shrimp fill the fresh rolls, which have a soft rice paper wrapper and come with a creamy peanut sauce. The steamed mussels served in a clay pot tasted of woodsy lemongrass, and the chicken version of pho (it’s normally made with beef) was sublimely comforting. Tender slices of steamed chicken and rice noodles topped the bowl of savory star anise–flavored broth.


Huynh's chicken salad surrounded by shrimp chips.

The salads are satisfying, too, including a tossed salad of chicken, crisp cabbage, cilantro, and vegetables topped with toasted peanuts and fried shrimp chips.

As good as the first courses are, be sure to save room for such entrées as shrimp and eggplant in spicy shrimp sauce. The chunks of purple Japanese eggplant are well caramelized on the outside and as creamy as custard within.

Our favorite dish by far was the crab curry, a pot of spiced reddish coconut curry, full of the elusive aromas of lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves clinging to chunks of potatoes, carrots, and pieces of cooked crab in the shell. It’s an entrée that can be intimidating to eat in such a beautiful setting—I was particularly concerned for the fate of the dark-green silk table runner—but with extra plates, crab crackers, and small finger bowls, we managed just fine.

The restaurant has a full bar and impressive cocktails, including the lychee cosmopolitan, a tangy combination of locally produced Hangar One citron-flavored vodka, lychee syrup, Cointreau, cranberry juice, and lime. If you’re looking for a straightforward drink, try the Saigon beer, a crisp Vietnamese import.

At dessert, the restaurant’s play on the Italian affogato is brilliant. In Huynh’s version, a generous bowl of soft vanilla bean gelato is served alongside a little metal pot of still-brewing Vietnamese coffee dripping into a glass. The resulting coffee makes a rich sauce.
After dining at Huynh, you feel soothed and sated, as if you’ve been a well honored guest. It’s how every meal should end.

Contact: Huynh, 1512 Locust St., Walnut Creek, (925) 952-9898,
www.huynhrestaurant.com
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Price: Appetizers $7–$14, entrées $14–$20
Alcohol: Full bar ■

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