Perhaps it was the name that threw me off, or maybe my blind allegiance to restaurants in Little Saigon, but I never figured Bamboo Bistro in Corona del Mar to be a place that served legitimate Vietname fare.
I mean, Bamboo Bistro sounds like one of those Americanized, pan-Asian joints, right? And it’s located in the charming but very non-Vietnamese town of Newport Beach, so how credible could it be?
So it was much to my surprise when I discovered that Bamboo Bistro was actually the sister restaurant to the famed Brodard restaurants in Little Saigon. When the eagerly anticipated Brodard Chateau opened last year in Garden Grove, patrons oohed and ahhed. Brodard took what it made famous – the quintessential Vietnamese spring roll – and unveiled a fusion take with seared ahi.
Alas, it was nothing new over at Bamboo Bistro. As it turns out, most of the star dish-es at the Chateau, like the Sea Bass Curry and Prawn and Mango Salad – were already steady favorites at the 6-year-old Bamboo Bistro.
And after dining there four times in the past two weeks, I think I’m ready to admit I was wrong. Luckily, instead of having to eat crow, I walked into the cozy neighborhood eatery (it’s at the corner of a residential area) and was treated to a new Bamboo Bistro creation. Justwhen I thought the Ahi Spring Roll ($9), which is beautifully presented as a sushi cut roll, couldn’t possibly be topped, owner Chau Dang-Haller turned out a mouthwatering follow-up: Roasted Duck Spring Rolls ($8). Chunks of tender and savory duck with crispy skin, nestled amid fluffy vermicelli noodles, fresh lettuce, cucumber and asparagus, all snugly enveloped in pliable rice paper. They arrived in two rolls, sliced in half – not nearly enough to satisfy the urge to eat 10.
After sampling such delectable flavors as Brodard’s trademark Roasted Pork Spring Rolls, Grilled Shrimp Spring Rolls and even the simpler Fresh Shrimp and Pork Rolls, I found it difficult to get excited about the much tamer Vegetarian Spring Rolls ($5), which came with tofu, noodles, lettuce and carrots.
Despite the similarity in offerings between the Brodard eateries, it’s obvious who Bamboo Bistro caters to, and that’s perfectly understandable. There are barely any Vietnamese words on the menu, hardly any Vietnamese names for any of the dishes, save for the pho and banh xeo, or Vietnamese crepes. Most of the menu seemed to borrow from mainstream Asian dish-es.
The Chicken Satay ($8), surprisingly, had a delicious charred surface. And although I’m not a fan of the sweet peanut sauce, Bamboo Bistro’s robust version delivered a spicy kick that made us want to slather it over everything else. Other basic Thai dishes included Pad Thai (with shrimp, chicken or tofu) and a few Thai soups, like the Chicken Coconut Soup, a rich and creamy broth with bamboo shoots, mush – rooms and crunchy bits of chopped peanuts ($8). The Vegetable Tom Yum ($10) arrived in a metal tureen heated over a small flame. Strips of firm tofu, bok choy and mushrooms floated atop an amber-hued lemongrass broth that was initially a little too sweet for my taste, but went well when ladled over the accompanying portion of thin vermicelli for a mini serving of noodle soup.
I was happy to discover that the Shredded Chicken Salad ($8) was very true to the Vietnamese goi ga, with torn bits of moist white chicken on a bed of julienned cabbage, carrots, mint and fried shallots, all tossed in what was described as a house vinaigrette, which I suspected was a citrus-y and light nuoc mam. Either way, it was better than the fancier (and drier) version I had at Brodard Chateau.
The Sea Bass Curry ($22) came out a beautiful and hefty filet bathed in a zesty golden curry atop delicate slices of shiitake mushrooms and eggplant. We were given round discs of Malaysian bread called roti to sop up the delicious curry, but how I longed for some warm loaves of French bread to do the trick. The Tiger Prawns With Garlic Noodles ($17) proved another winning choice, with supple and thick noodles wok-fried in a lip-smacking garlic sauce and topped with four grilled prawns.
To end the meal, we opted for the Banana Crepe ($6). Slices of warm banana were slathered in gooey chocolate and hazelnut Nutella goodness and wrapped in a thin and caramelized pancake. We also tried the coconut sorbet ($4) but found it a little too coconut-y.
When our bill arrived, we were amused by what came with it: fortune cookies, just like the kind you get at, well, you know.