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Slow and Steady : On Little Saigon's edge, Le Jardin shines--without assembly-line tactics.

September 10, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Colonial Vietnam saw the beginnings of the culinary cross-fertilization that's so common today. Yet Orange County's Vietnamese colony has spawned surprisingly few Franco-Vietnamese fusion restaurants. The best to date is newcomer Le Jardin, in a Fountain Valley mini-mall a few miles from Little Saigon.

Le Jardin has a menu filled with delicious dishes, but what really makes it stand out is an unhurried, uncommercial feeling. From the moment you pass the stone sculpture garden outside, everything is artfully conceived.

The food is a step up in quality from what is served in most Little Saigon places. The open kitchen uses good ingredients, from Choice filet of beef to Prince Edward Island mussels. And the kitchen works slowly and deliberately, markedly unlike the typical Bolsa Avenue food factory, at which dishes roll off the line like parts at an auto plant.

Nor does Le Jardin look like a typical Little Saigon restaurant. The place fairly reeks of Art Deco. The dining room is softly lighted by multicolored Diva lights suspended just below the ceiling; the tables bear white tablecloths and translucent blue service plates. The highlight of the handsome dining room furniture is the designer rattan chair, elegantly patterned in beige and black. And smack in the middle of the restaurant stands a leafy bamboo tree framed in wooden slats.

It's quite a departure from the bright, basic, relentlessly practical cafes that line the streets of Little Saigon.

If there is a down side to Le Jardin, it's the service. The waiters are friendly but lack experience, and dishes often come in random order--or, even more annoyingly, in inconvenient waves. On weeknights, when the kitchen is thinly staffed, the pace of a meal can be excruciatingly slow, but one Friday night our meal proceeded at a reasonable clip, thanks to an extra pair of chefs.

Some dishes are worth waiting for. Pass up the mussels in garlic and red pepper sauce, made with rubbery New Zealand mussels, for the magnificent steamed mussels (which make most mussel preparations I've tasted seem ordinary).

For this dish, the kitchen uses small, intensely briny Prince Edward Island mussels, glistening burnt orange in jet-black shells. The mussels are piled into a casserole dish filled with a rich, ambrosial, coconut-milk broth flavored with lemon grass, shallots and Cajun spices. I promise you will not leave a drop.

One of the most interesting salads is goi chan vit rut xuong, also called "special salad" on the menu. It's a refreshing platter of cucumbers, carrots, onions, fresh herbs and crushed peanuts, the vegetables punctuated by gelatinous white pieces of exquisitely delicate duck tendon. Our waiter, having tried hard to talk us out of ordering this dish, seemed pleased when we ate it ravenously.

Rice paper rolls, those staples of Little Saigon markets and restaurants, are also a good bet. Bi cuon is filled with minced pork, goi cuon with shrimp. You can get both, along with cha gio, the famous deep-fried crab- and pork-filled Vietnamese egg roll, in a sampler, two of each.

Le Jardin makes a fairly light version of French onion soup, a nicely beefy broth with a crouton sprinkled with Parmesan, and its lobster bisque is a gorgeous coral, scented with cognac and fresh chives.

As a middle course, try mien xao cua, stir-fried bean thread noodles tossed with vegetables and eggs, or hu tieu, a chicken soup mixed with thick rice noodles and four kinds of meat. The ubiquitous pho, Vietnam's most popular soup, is conspicuously absent.

*

Entrees tend to be either French or Vietnamese, but a few are true fusion dishes. The remarkable stir-fried chicken with lemon grass sounds like a classic Vietnamese dish but isn't. First, the chicken is all white meat, cut into big chunks. Second, the fragrant sauce is made from a classic French brunoise (thinly sliced onions and carrots sauteed in butter) with a powerful dose of Vietnam's beloved lemon grass.

From the rotisserie comes a terrific roast chicken rubbed with Provencal herbs--and lemon grass and sesame seeds. It's served with tiny bowls of Thai rice and a light, fragrant mushroom and lemon grass soup. Another true fusion dish is the garlic rice with steamed chicken, delicious homage to the French love of garlic.

"Rice wrapped lotus leaf" is a larger version of a dish you can get almost anywhere in Little Saigon: a packet of sticky rice, minced chicken, minced pork, Chinese sausage and sliced shiitake mushrooms.

On the purely French side, beef stew combines big chunks of lean meat with a rich, red-wine sauce. The $14.95 chateaubriand (one of the least expensive versions anywhere) is a perfectly cooked tenderloin, though the bearnaise sauce is watery and anemic. Nobody's perfect.

Le Jardin doesn't serve beer or wine, but there are several delicious drinks. Nuoc dua is a cool, icy drink of fresh slices of young coconut. Soda chanh is a fresh lemonade that doesn't skimp on sugar.

Little Saigon, take a breath.

Le Jardin is moderately priced. Appetizers are $2.95 to $8.95. Salads are $5.95 to $7.95. Entrees are $5.95 to $14.95.

BE THERE

Le Jardin, 17431 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley. (714) 593-5651. 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. MasterCard and Visa.

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