Fountain Valley Flash
Okay, let's start with some constructive criticism: Aysya in Fountain Valley needs to fix a couple of things, and fast.
First, the name: It elicits nothing but rolled eyes and derisive sneers when I mention it to friends. Someone needs to explain to Aysya that the only person who ever got away with replacing the letter C with a K was Krusty the Clown when he hosted Krusty's Komedy Klassics at the Apollo Theater; doing the same shtick as the name of meals gets tiresome quickly.
The service was terrible when I visited—one waitress flat-out forgot my girlfriend's order and lied about it, while another passed us at least five times before finally taking away the dirty dishes we had stacked near the edge of our table. The carrots in my entrée exhibited the telltale signs of recent refrigeration (gray color, icy texture), while the lemonade possessed as much sweetness as the Costa Mesa City Council. And Aysya owners: I've seen few things more ostentatious than lettering a VIP room with "VIP" in gold on its doors like ustedes do. Tacky.
But those sins ultimately don't detract from the tasty fare at this new Fountain Valley restaurant. Aysya says it specializes in Euro-Asian cuisine, but this is really a high-end Vietnamese joint. Most of the customers are Vietnamese, along with the dinners and renditions of "I Just Called to Say I Love You" that play over the speakers. This was once a Coco's or Denny's or some other chain Americana restaurant (most of Fountain Valley is a blur to me), and its transformation into a classy supper club is stunning. Paper lanterns light the dining room, which offers booths, large and single tables and even a sushi-style bar. Mosaic designs liven up the walls and floor; high, exposed ceilings add flash to the minimalist design. Just knock down the golden Doric columns near the middle, and you have a restaurant as pretty as those that dot PCH.
The relaxed atmosphere goes a long way in allowing diners to enjoy Aysya's massive seven-page menu, which jumps around different Asian culinary traditions—you can order pad Thai, chow fun and something called butter garlic noodles that was so rich, I could muster only three forkfuls before pushing away the bowl in glutted defeat. But most of the menu is Vietnamese—a bit disappointing, considering you can order most of the items anywhere in Little Saigon, and cheaper. Don't get me wrong: They're still good. The cha gio (popularly translated as imperial rolls) are fried to flaky joy, with crab meat that goes above and beyond the bland renditions of too many seafood joints.
From here, Aysya splits into genres—poultry, beef, salads, noodles and the like, mixed with various herbs, and sometimes sauced. Most tables go for the hot pots: bubbling cauldrons where you toss in various ingredients to create the soup of your choice. But the best meals are at the front, in the specials section. The sea bass curry combines the pleasures of the sea and terra firma in ways not seen since From Here to Eternity: sweet meat topped by a surprisingly spicy curry. I usually favor tongue-scorching meals, but this dish was just a tad too spicy—all the heat distracted from the curry's nuance and the natural appeal of the fish. We fared better with the huge lamb racks. Though this was the dish that featured the stale carrots (along with asparagus shoots better left for the compost heap), it was redeemed with a lemongrass glaze and meat that effortlessly came off the bone.
Dessert is good for the most part. The flan is fine, though not deserving of the "famous" label it boasts; call me a Mexican, but I've always enjoyed my flan with more of a custard bent than the Jell-O style favored by the Vietnamese. But the fried bananas succeed: just a thin layer of crispiness, which gives way to the fleshy fruit. Peanuts and honey decorate the top; anchoring the slices is a giant scoop of vanilla ice cream. Flashy to the point of annoyance, yet ultimately substantial: this is the Aysya way.
AYSYA, 17271 BROOKHURST ST., FOUNTAIN VALLEY, (714) 593-4041. OPEN 11 A.M.-10 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $25-$60, EXCLUDING DRINKS. LIQUOR LICENSE PENDING.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Orange County dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.