After its heyday in the ’80s, “fusion” became a bit of a four-letter word. But it’s since made a comeback, with globally minded chefs drawing on techniques, traditions and ingredients from around the world, bringing them to an upscale audience. And there’s perhaps no better cuisine suited to fusion than Vietnamese, which is historically already a cross-cultural culinary mashup.
Remnants of the French Colonial era can be tasted in dishes like banh mi served on French baguettes, slathered with savory pate; rice flour banh xeo crepes; or even the most famous of Vietnamese mainstays—pho—whose clarified broth bears a striking resemblance to consommé. Even before the French arrived, the Chinese had a heavy influence on Vietnam’s culture and cooking too, with wontons and wheat noodles making their way into several dishes.
The hallmarks of Vietnam’s vibrant, diverse culinary culture are clean, bright flavors that are never too heavy. So it’s naturally well-suited for the health-conscious, discerning clientele of Beverly Hills, where executive chef Helene An—hailed as “The Mother of Fusion”—has run the kitchen at Crustacean restaurant for 20 years.
An’s restaurant—which has long drawn in the Hollywood elite—recently received a $10 million redesign, complete with a new menu aiming to elevate and modernize Vietnamese cuisine. But that’s not to say that it’s all about foams and barely recognizable tweezer food.
Of course, there are Crustacean classics that will never leave the menu—namely her famously addictive garlic noodles served with an entire garlic roasted crab in its shell. Originally created at her mother-in-law’s Italian restaurant in San Francisco after she emigrated in 1975, the dish is a take on pasta that was true to Vietnamese flavors and sensibilities without being labeled as such, since there were lingering postwar anti-immigrant sentiments at the time.
Now in a new era, An, or “Mama” as the kitchen endearingly calls her, has teamed up with chef Tony Nguyen, a five-year veteran of the House of An restaurant group, to breathe new life into the menu.
A great example is the beef tartare—a dish, like spicy tuna, traditionally meant to mask cheap meat—but at Crustacean, it’s made with ultra-high-end A5 wagyu. Nguyen uses toasted rice powder to tone down the gamey taste of the beef, a traditional Vietnamese method; then gives it a hit of bright citrus with a yuzu lemongrass dressing, and deep savory notes from truffle Dijon mustard; then serves it with shrimp chips instead of a toasted baguette.
There’s also a wonderful take on Shanghainese xiai long bao, here made as pho soup dumplings. Pillowy handmade dough encases a pork and chicken dumpling that then sits in a bowl of perfectly clear consommé fragrant with lemongrass, kefir and holy basil. It’s the comforting dish you just wish you could Postmates on a sick day. Or any day, really.
And that’s Mama’s goal. Her grandfather was a practitioner of Eastern medicine, and after learning his modalities, An has charged herself with infusing them into her food. As such, there are plenty of vegan- and vegetarian-friendly items on the menu, like the vegan crabcake made with jackfruit, which flaunts texture and taste deceivingly like the real deal. And the karate salad, a perfect slaw made from raw julienned kohlrabi, black truffle and a punchy vinaigrette topped with crispy shoestring Kennebec potatoes and gorgeous garlic blossoms. The vinaigrette, like all of Mama’s savory sauces, skews heavy on the acid and herbs and low on oils and fats, giving that vibrant Vietnamese flavor that we’ve all grown to crave.
Seasoned beverage director Peter Barriga’s bar program also integrates the ideals, weaving some of the wellness world’s buzzy ingredients into the cocktail program. His well-balanced Turmeric Mule made with turmeric-infused gin, turmeric and ginger syrups, citrus, and soda would be perfect for sipping on the indoor-outdoor patio over lunch on a sunny day. And The Saigon Jalisco spiked with agave spirits, GT’s kombucha, citrus and coconut milk consists of ingredients that not only boast functional health benefits, but actually make the drink taste better too.
But just because things can skew toward the healthier side doesn’t mean there aren’t over-the-top indulgences as well. There are certainly showy dishes meant for splashing out, like the A5 wagyu beef from Japan’s revered Matsusaka region that’s presented on a sizzling stone of Himalayan sea salt served with a side of pork belly XO sauce. Or the box of tuna tartare “cigars” wrapped in brick de feuille dough and topped with caviar, which, when opened at the table, wafts a gentle cloud of oak smoke your way.
And, of course, there’s Barriga’s take on a the typically masculine Penicillin cocktail—a black tea-infused scotch blend, stirred with honey and ginger syrup, and honey that’s given a softer, feminine side by pouring a cloud of black tea and lavender smoke from a Chinese teakettle at your table.
It’s hard to determine whether it’s the showy presentations, the electricity of a good celeb sighting or simply the excitement of new life being breathed into the An dynasty—run by An and her five daughters—that’s making the restaurant buzz. The staff is visibly excited about the new space and can’t seem to stop chattering about the upcoming fall opening of Da Lat Rose at Crustacean, named after the beautiful city in Southern Vietnam’s Central Highlands where An grew up as a child.
Whatever it is, it’s refreshing to see that even in a city where the dining scene changes as rapidly as L.A., longstanding family-run establishments can continue to build upon their legacy—one delicious dumpling at a time.
9646 S. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, 310.205.8990
Dinner: Tue.-Thu. & Sun., 5:30-10pm; Fri.-Sat, 5:30-11pm
Snacks: $14-$22; large plates, $35-$78