La Vie en Fusion
Photo by Tenaya HillsChez Rose in Westminster is a delicious aberration in many ways. For one, this little café specializes in French-Vietnamese cuisine, a much-loved rarity in Little Saigon occupying the same haute couture stature in Vietnamese society that tea and crumpets does for Newport Beach housewives. More notably, however, Chez Rose prepares the French-Vietnamese diet in a vegetarian manner. Cooking the hybrid cuisine is demanding enough, but to establish parameters on your chefs—especially one as crucial as flesh, considering the shared meat obsession in Vietnamese and French cultures—makes the task doubly difficult. In fact, most local French-Vietnamese restaurants, even those that use meat, quickly disappear or ditch the fusion attempt altogether.
Chez Rose succeeds where others fail, although the owners probably agreed to some sort of Faustian pact with the foodie gods to ensure good fortune. And the devil's payoff is in the run-down surroundings. Chez Rose stands alone on the corner of Westminster Boulevard and Olive Street, far from the familiar hustle and bustle of Little Saigon, in a desolate business district that suggests Westminster is in desperate need of a redevelopment agency. The parking lot is barely enough to house a Mini Cooper, a Vespa and possibly a Schwinn. The front portion of the restaurant features dark glass windows that are reminiscent of those drab, gray lobster houses along the craggy coast of Northern Maine minus the large fishing nets and buoys.
Inside Chez Rose, however, the off-putting outside aesthetic disappears like last night's bean sprouts. Couples sit at simple tables with simple chairs in one of the nearly 10 seating spots available, all lit softly come nightfall. Adorning the tables are traditional Vietnamese condiments: canisters of fish and soy sauces, chile, and chopsticks. Lovely wisps of Edith Piaf and other French lounge grooves float from the hidden sound system. Little country-craft signs with kitchen slogans en Français plaster the walls, fighting for attention with the English/Vietnamese menu and bulbous Chinese red-lantern globes hanging sporadically from the ceiling.
The back-and-forth between French and Vietnamese décor gets dizzying, even a bit annoying. But bickering soon dissipates under the brotherhood of great food. Start with the autumn rolls, transparent rice paper wrapped around julienned carrots, lemongrass strands, crispy tofu, Thai basil and wonderfully smoked veggie jambon. The dish is light enough that you can combine it with another appetizer, the faux fish porridge. It's as pungent as the real marine deal and goes wonderfully with Chez Rose's crispy made-that-day baguettes—you can imagine indulging on this fish porridge along the banks of the Seine or Mekong.
The baguettes also nicely complement the potato "chicken" curry, a piquant, amber, faux fowl delight. The soy-derived chicken is as smoothly hearty as any hen, and its accompanying slurry's thick, creamy consistency packs a chile heat that will scorch the bread quicker than the sweat on your forehead will dampen a napkin.
But the pièce de résistance is the fried fish with lemongrass. Like Chez Rose's exterior, it initially doesn't impress: two desiccated fillets of fabricated fish served alongside steamed white rice. But then you bite: as succulent as salmon, zingy with a lemongrass garnish that should earn it a blue ribbon from the Cordon Bleu people, and large enough to ensure leftovers for a couple of nights.
As Ms. Piaf begins to sing "La Vie en Rose"—for some serendipitous reason, the CD player always plays her torch song around dessert time—and you sip on a second order of coma-eradicating coffee, you can feel the world revert to a pre-Dien Bien Phu era, where French elegance and Vietnamese refinement waltzed tenuously. So don't dare break this time warp by ordering the American fare available—so-so fake tuna sandwiches, passable tofu hamburgers and spaghetti with bland "meat" balls that a stray animal would avoid. Perhaps Chez Rose neglects its American side as culinary retribution—after all, at least France bothered to leave a food legacy along with mines and murder when they played colonial master.
CHEZ ROSE VEGETARIAN RESTAURANT, 7360 WESTMINSTER BLVD., WESTMINSTER, (714) 890-9711. OPEN DAILY, 9 A.M.-9 P.M. NO ALCOHOL. DINNER FOR TWO, $5-$20, FOOD ONLY. CASH ONLY.
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