Walnut Creek's new Élevé mixes classic Asian flavors with hip food trends.
Photography by Caren Alpert
Vietnamese-style beef carpaccio with mint, toasted peanuts, and spiced lime dressing.
There’s an alchemy in the Brooklyn cocktail served at Élevé in Walnut Creek—a surprising result conjured from ingredients that are both old-school 1910 and local and organic 2010. Made from artisan liquor and essences, with a slab of hand-cut ice and what smells like an entire grove of refreshing orange peel, its layers of flavor would captivate even the most committed teetotaler.
The drink—on a list created by artisan bar god Thad Vogler, who helped develop the cocktails at Slanted Door, Camino, and Flora—is not all that unlike Élevé itself. The new Vietnamese restaurant has roots in downtown Oakland. Élevé chef and co-owner Michele Nguyen was born in Vietnam and grew up at her family’s simple and mega popular Pho 84 on Oakland’s 17th Street. When Nguyen’s father died, she took over the business, personally manning the stoves for 15 years, at a spot that usually had a line out the door.
Now she and her husband, Cuong Du, have opened Élevé, a process that Nguyen says began three years ago, to present what she calls “updated classic Vietnamese.” Élevé, which means raised or elevated in French, is also a combination of the couple’s children’s names: Ella and Ava. And, the updating, like the cocktails, is mostly about the ingredients. Organic, natural products, local when possible, go into Nguyen’s vibrant cooking, with remarkable results.
It doesn’t hurt that Élevé feels urban and sophisticated, yet comfortable and calm. The predominant color is that of milk chocolate, with a few bright accents—a pink orchid, a glass bowl of limes, a bowl of oranges—that stand out appealingly. A glass facade brings in a nighttime view of the dramatically lit white birch trees on the southeast corner of Civic and North Broadway. In the first months after the restaurant opened, only the first floor was available, but the second floor, with the same great view, should open soon.
The first dish we ordered at Élevé knocked us out. Called beef carpaccio on the menu, only the tender, delicate sheets of pristine beef evoke its Italian cousin. The flavors are Vietnamese all the way. A generous garnish of mint, kaffir lime leaves, fresh toasted peanuts, and a lime dressing makes for more flavor pizzazz than most of us taste in a week.
Ditto on the five spice chicken and the eggplant prawns. The chicken was crisp on the outside, juicy inside, and liberally seasoned. The prawns had snap and a pure sweetness, and the accompanying eggplant was tender.
Élevé serves Vietnamese beer plus some well-chosen imports from other countries. The wine list is also first-rate—the whites especially interesting as accompaniments to Vietnamese food, with its occasional inflection of France and mellow spice. Nguyen says the wine list will change periodically.
If we had one small overall quibble at dinner, it was that the two entrées we ordered were quite sweet. Also a bit sweet were the pea tendrils, which although young and in season, were a little tough.
A crème brûlée after dinner came with mini madeleines that could headline at a bakery in France. Fresh-squeezed juices and top-shelf Red Blossom teas made great additions to a dining experience that was already exciting.
A dish at lunch, the beef garlic egg noodles, came heaped with museum-quality fresh vegetables: Chinese broccoli, regular broccoli, mushrooms, green beans, zucchini, and tomato. The noodles tasted house-made. The grilled chicken vermicelli and grilled beef baguette sandwich brought somewhat tame—and perhaps less soulful—versions of these casual Vietnamese favorites into Élevé’s pretty setting.
Overall, Élevé’s menu spans quite a variety of Vietnamese dishes, perhaps in the hope of attracting an equally broad variety of customers—“from the families, to the professionals, to the young and hip,” as Nguyen says. While lunch prices seem a little high for Walnut Creek, dinner seems totally reasonable. So, how is Élevé positioning itself amid Walnut Creek’s recent influx of Vietnamese restaurants?
“I’m not always good at explaining these things,” Nguyen says. “I have a gut feeling for how I want things, and I develop that.”
So far, it’s working.
At a Glance
WHAT MAKES IT SPECIAL: Vibrant food and drinks made from top-notch ingredients play beautifully in the sleek, elegant setting.
THE SPACE: Totally redone before Élevé was opened, the restaurant, with its glass facade and rich color scheme, feels fresh, urban, and 21st century—yet soothing.
WHEN TO GO: Dinnertime—indulge in a heavenly cocktail before experiencing one of the exquisite appetizers or dinner entrées.
WHAT TO ORDER: Beef carpaccio, five spice chicken, fragrant brown or jasmine rice, fresh-squeezed juice, jasmine iced tea, any dessert that comes with the mini madeleines.
BONUS: Élevé’s pretty, low-key bar is a great place to sit and have a drink. The cocktails, and even the coffee and hot teas, are remarkable.CONTACT: 1677 N. Main St., Walnut Creek, (925) 979-1677, eleverestaurant.com.
HOURS: Lunch Tues.–Fri., dinner Tues.–Sun.
PRICE: Lunch $9–$15, dinner $15–$22.
ALCOHOL: Full bar.