It’s been awhile since I’ve been to a pop-up dinner, where a chef makes dinner in borrowed space. Popups often provide the chance for intimate dinners between diners and chef.
On Sunday, I checked out a popup in Oakland featured on the Feastly site, along with my food eating adventurers Brenda of Bites and Bourbon, Sandy of Foodhoe’s Foraging, and Christina of East Bay Dish. It was Christina’s second time trying this popup, a six-course dinner (for $45) by Chef Tu David Phu.
Phu, who previously cooked at Berkeley’s Gather, wanted to cook in an environment that allowed him to connect with his diners, and for him to experiment with dishes reflecting his Vietnamese childhood. During our dinner, Phu took time to explain each course as well as get feedback from diners. (And he’s very proud of his family’s heritage in making fish sauce.)
The dinner, which was in a space on Broadway near the Temescal neighborhood, started with an amuse that was a pseudo egg made instead with tofu and apples. The flavors had just a hint of the tastes I’ve found at Vietnamese restaurant, but it was subtle, which was a theme for many of the dishes to come.
In a lacquer box came a bit of bo tai hun khoi, which was Phu’s version of beef tartare made with almond-wood smoked beef mixed with bits of oyster, rauram, seeds and Phu’s family aged fish sauce. I’m generally not a fan of raw meat, but the lightness of the meat and lovely presentation (and thankfully smaller portion) made this an easy bite.
A grilled rice paper dish called banh trang nuong was actually something new to me. Often eaten as street food in Vietnam, the grilled rice paper is often eaten like a folded taco but Phu made his like a canopy over a serving of potato, kumiage, mushrooms and truffle. Christina loved the subtlety of flavors and textures in this dish, but this is where I differed with most at the table because it was my least favorite dish — seemingly bland and mushy in texture. I felt it needed a kick of salt to help open my tastebuds.
The pork and foie gras wonton was one of those dishes that reminded me more of my Chinese upbringing than Vietnamese. It was served in a very light and delicate consomme that was cleansing for the cold night.
My favorite dish was the com hai nam course, which was claypot chicken fat rice made with broken rice and simply stir-fried with lemongrass and ginger. This was pure comfort food and nicely cooked.
Before our next course, Chef Phu offered the diners a palate cleanser of fresh sugar cane juice, which is common in Southeast Asia. It wowed our table when the server brought a bucket of test tubes filled with sugar cane juice and bubbling in liquid ice. Here’s my Instagram video of this treat (sorry for the low light):
The main course of beef tenderloin was an homage to the classic Vietnamese beef stew dish of bo kho. It was a deconstructed bo kho with four-hour cooked beef with cooked daikon and enoki mushrooms. While the dish looked simple, the sauce made with classic Vietnamese spices made this plate a bo kho. Just licking the sauce told my mouth that I was eating bo kho. The flavors were spot on.
Our meal ended with a simple dessert of soy milk tofu, with soy milk from Oakland’s Hodo Soy. This was another dish that reminded me of the silken tofu dessert at Cantonese restaurant. Phu served his similarly with a ginger syrup, and topped it off with a sprinkling of 14K gold leaf.
Phu’s AN dinners are an educational tour of his Vietnam. The chef adds to the experience with his personal reflections, and he backs it up with some nicely cooked plates.
Phu does his AN dinners throughout the year, and you can look for an upcoming dinner on his Feastly page.
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