"Fusion cuisine" is a phrase tossed around a lot these days. Cultures have been happily coupling in the kitchen for decades, and the result has been an endless mix of new tastes and flavors.
One of the original unions was the Vietnamese French connection that took place after France colonized Vietnam in the 1850s.
Thanks to the largest assembly of Vietnamese outside of Southeast Asia, French Vietnamese restaurants are plentiful in Orange County. And a Vietnamese brunch is a sneaky way to stick to a healthy diet while squeezing in a little French decadence.
Sunday mornings at the Favori Restaurant in Santa Ana are family affairs. For some reason, the very dark dining room, bathed in dim pink light against mirrored walls, is extremely quiet. Either because of the calming peach decor or the reserved diners, customers whisper their orders and are greeted with speedy, efficient servers.
The first decision is whether to go French or Vietnamese for appetizers. After checking out the creamed mushrooms on toast, the escargot and the assorted creamed soups, we headed east toward khai vi: Vietnamese starters.
Minced pork and vegetables rolled in rice noodles are a traditional beginning to most meals in Vietnam, but I suggest skipping the Favori version because they are too dry and even the wonderfully sweet and pungent peanut sauce can't revive them.
Instead, order the fried spring rolls, another typical choice for starters. These crispy delights are made of shredded pork, bean sprouts and cellophane noodles, fried like an eggroll. They are eaten wrapped in a leaf of iceberg lettuce and dipped in fish sauce, or nam pla.
We wanted more but pressed on with our mission to try several other starters and main dishes. Seafood crepes, which are the Vietnamese version of omelets, were a little greasy but bulging with bean sprouts and shrimp. They are similar to egg rolls, but instead of fried dough, eggs are crisped over fillings like a thin blintz.
My favorite first course is the shrimp and beef salad (go tom bo tai chanh, No. 53 on the appetizer list). This stack of crispy fresh carrots, mint and cilantro slivers, onions, lotus roots, celery, beef, shrimp and chopped peanuts--all bathed in a sweet-and-sour lime sauce--is my idea of a perfect salad.
On another visit we tried escargot in butter and wine sauce. Yes, these are snails--delicious, nutty, braised curlicues plucked from their garlicky shells.
Feeling carnivorous? Favori dedicates half its French menu to beef. Filet mignons--in either green peppercorn, Bearnaise, wine or onion sauces--are tender and tasty. They are grilled to order and covered in a light and tangy cream sauce that can be dangerously addictive. Add warm garlic bread and a fried potato and you're talking guilty pleasures.
If the French are fatter than Asians, this is the reason. Much of the appeal of Vietnamese dishes is that fresh-from-the-garden smell of fragrant mint, cilantro, parsley and other fresh herbs tossed on nearly everything you order. Crispy-fried, barbecued pork, for example, is infused with basil, mint, cilantro and mounded on top of vermicelli. Other braised meats and curries are dusted with assorted greenery.
No Vietnamese menu would be complete without pho, or meat broth with rice noodles. In Vietnam, snack carts on city streets sell this soup from morning to night. Although pho is often eaten for breakfast, my Vietnamese friend says that in her homeland, cold weather brings on heavier French food. It is often cafe au lait and bread in the morning, meat in cream sauce at night and Vietnamese dishes loaded with vegetables or light noodle soups in the middle of the day when the temperature rises.
The most popular choices for ending a meal in Vietnam are flans and sweetened bean cakes. After so many forbidden fruits, we opted for a sensible pot of tea.
Favori Restaurant, 3502 W. 1st Street, Santa Ana, (714) 531-6838. Open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily. Prices range from $1.50 to $27, but most dishes are in the $8-to-$10 range.