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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, March 21, 2003

A restaurant for all seasons A restaurant for all seasons (March 21, 2003)

Three Seasons serves up wonderful Vietnamese cuisine

by Dale F. Bentson

W hen done properly, there is an elegance to Vietnamese cuisine that rivals the great cuisines of the world. Ingredients are fresh, light and in perfect balance on the plate. The balance comes from ingenious use of sauces, which enhance rather than mask the flavors of the dishes with which they are served.

At the new Three Seasons restaurant in downtown Palo Alto, those sauces excel. This is the second Three Seasons restaurant for owner/chef Hung Le and his wife, Tessa. The original, in San Francisco's Marina District, has been regarded as one of the finest Vietnamese restaurants in the Bay Area since opening three years ago. Le, a Vietnamese native, emigrated with his family from Vietnam in those chaotic months just before the fall of Saigon in 1975. An electrical engineer by training, he gained restaurant experience at two family-owned eateries in Sacramento.

Le's palate is much more adventurous than traditional Vietnamese cuisine, though, and he personifies the term "Asian fusion" cooking. Through travel and reading, he has developed an intriguing menu with exciting flavors and unexpected combinations designed to modernize traditional dishes.

For instance, Three Seasons offers 10 different spring rolls, all freshly stuffed into thin rice paper with lettuce, cilantro, rice vermicelli and mint. To this mixture the Marina spring rolls ($9) combines fleshy, smoked salmon and spicy ahi tuna complemented by a ginger-soy dipping sauce. The appealing duck rolls ($9) are flavorful Peking-style duck with mango, cucumber and hoisin chili sauce. Summer rolls ($9) are my current favorite, adding Dungeness crab and avocado to the mix, with a ginger soy vinaigrette for dipping. There are six plump spring rolls beautifully presented per serving.

One section of the menu is devoted to satays, a traditional Indian manner of serving little tidbits on a skewer. Curry prawns ($9) are grilled and served with a keen wasabi soy sauce. Honey quails ($9) are semi-boneless and come with a simple yet delightful lime, salt and pepper sauce.

Since Three Seasons bills itself as a family-style restaurant, dishes are made to be shared. There is a "small plates" section and a "large plates" section. Crispy scallop wontons ($9 for a small plate) are four light and crispy wontons stuffed with scallop, jicama, mushroom, basil and scallion, served with a sweet chili sauce. The pork ribs ($9) are delicious small chunks of pork rib sauteed with tamarind sauce and green onion. I could have ordered a second plate and been happy with the dinner.

Of the large plates, grilled duck a l' orange ($14) was succulent and fragrant, bursting with the flavors of star anise, fresh ginger, cayenne, paprika and orange sauce. Shaking beef ($13) wok tossed with green onion, black pepper and spicy garlic sauce was one of the more traditional dishes on the menu. While delicious, it was not as interesting as most of the other offerings.

New Zealand rack of lamb ($22) was fabulous, rubbed with five spices and served with Asian greens and a Syrah veal stock sauce; a unique dish from Chef Le. Sesame-crusted scallops ($17) served with spicy baby bok choy were plump and perfectly prepared, cooked through yet melt-in-your-mouth tender. Possibly the most interesting of the large plates was the whole crispy New Zealand red snapper ($22) served with a sweet chili scallion sauce. The fish was tender and meaty and easy to debone without asking for assistance. The whole fish presentation made a dramatic and appetizing display.

Four giant Tiger prawns ($20), butterflied, marinated then grilled with garlic noodles and Parmesan cheese, were tasty and well-prepared, if not terribly exciting. I recommend a bowl of jasmine steamed rice ($1) with the large plates, but it is not necessary for the small plates -- the rice will help soak up the ambrosial sauces. A number of side dishes are available; my favorite were the spicy green beans ($6), saut´┐Żed with shiitake mushrooms and tossed in a black pepper caramel sauce.

The half-dozen desserts are all $6. The most engaging was the Tea Set, green tea ice cream and a pot of green tea presented in matching cups. The traditional fried banana served with coconut ice cream and a dollop of creamy coconut sauce was luscious and lighter than it sounded. Mango sorbet was refreshing and the three giant scoops were imposing. Ginger creme brulee was nicely prepared with subtle hints of ginger blended with the vanilla custard. I would have liked some bits of candied ginger in mine to give it more personality but I split hairs. The wait staff was friendly, prompt and helpful.

The wine list, though not extensive, was fairly priced and ran the gamut of world wines. The wines have been selected to complement the refined flavors of the foods with which they are paired. J.J. Prum, 1999 Reisling, Graacher Himmerlreich from Germany ($27) and Ravenswood Merlot, Vintner's Blend, Sonoma, 2000 ($21) are excellent choices. Sixteen wines and three sparkling wines are offered by the glass ($6 -$12). There is a full bar service with a fun menu of potent potables.

Three Seasons is housed in the former Circadia location (previously 42nd Street), with its stained glass atrium. The main floor contains a bar with large screen TV (sports, of course) with both regular-sized and high tables. The high tables, with accompanying high chairs, are cumbersome to climb into and next-to-impossible to scoot under the table after you are seated. I was not offered a choice of seating on my first visit but was on subsequent visits. The high tables are for the young and the agile. There is more intimate dining on the second-floor balcony, and as the weather warms the outdoor seating will be much sought after. Ramona Plaza, being off the street, between Ramona and Bryant streets, offers quiet carbon monoxide-free outdoor dining.

Three Seasons along with Tamarine, which opened several months ago on University Avenue, gives Palo Alto two of the finest Vietnamese restaurants on the West Coast. Lucky us.

Three Seasons Restaurant, 518 Bryant St., Palo Alto; (650) 838-0353;

Hours: Dinner Sun. - Thurs. 5 -- 10 p.m.; Fri. - Sat. 5 -- 11 p.m.; weekday lunch (starting March 28) 11:30 a.m. - 2 p.m.
Atmosphere: Contemporary Vietnamese cuisine in a distinguished environment. The bar area can get noisy for adjacent diners, but the balcony offers a more romantic and peaceful dining experience, even though it is open to the bar below.

Highlights: Spring rolls are marvelous; most of the dishes are innovative and intriguing. Family-style sharing of plates is encouraged. Adequate, fairly priced wine list; full bar.

Price Range: Spring rolls and satays: $8 -- $10. Small Plates: $8 -- $11. Large Plates:$10 -- $22. Desserts are $6
Reservations: yes Credit cards: yes Full bar: yes Outdoor dining: yes Take out: yes High chairs: yes Private room and banquet facilities: yes Noise level: moderate Bathroom cleanliness: high Parking: city lots


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