JULY 31, 1998
At Crustacean in Beverly Hills,
the fairy tale story of a Vietnamese
family means a happy ending for diners
Attracting a celebrity clientele to a new Beverly Hills restaurant is probably no harder than getting the stars to show up for a movie premiere, but keeping them as customers is a lot more difficult. Buzz is what gets a restaurant through the first glittering months, but after that the stars move on and a “been there, done that” attitude can sink a restaurant’s fortunes before the year is out.
BY JOHN MARIANI
This has decidedly not been the case with Crustacean, whose opening was, in Hollywood parlance, boffo! Its success has been guaranteed by the continued presence of usually fickle celebs like Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Oliver Stone, Will Smith, Sharon Stone and Mel Gibson, as well as by regulars who cannot easily find refined Vietnamese seafood of this caliber elsewhere in town. Thro in one of the most dazzling interior designs of this or any year and an enchanting story about a beautiful Vietnamese family, and you have the makings of a long-running hit.
The story begins like a fairy tale, with Helen Tranh and her 16 siblings growing up in an aristocratic family that ruled the province of Tuyen Quang in what is now North Vietnam. Privileged and prominent, the Tranhs entertained lavishly, often having 300 people at a banquet, with cuisine prepared by three chefs—one French (from whom Helene learned that cooking was an art), one Chinese (who taught the aesthetics of the table) and one Vietnamese (who instructed as to native culinary culture).
But then, as in all fairy tales, the story begins to dar5ken. With the end of French colonial rule and the fall of North Vietnam to the Communists in 1955, the Tranhs were forced to move south to Saigon. There, Helene married an air force pilot named Danny An, had three daughters—Elizabeth, Monique and Hannah—and began to rebuild her life. But in 1975 South Vietnamese rule also crumbled. The Ans fled Saigon with one hour’s notice, leaving behind everything they owned.
Fortunately Danny’s mother had already relocated to San Francisco and opened up a tiny Vietnamese restaurant named Thanh Long, which was doing well enough to provide the Ans with the means to survive—even if it meant that the entire family had to spend the first year living in a one-room apartment above the restaurant. But the Ans worked exceedingly hard and thrived. Helene had two more babies, Jacqueline and Catherine, and her older daughters excelled at American colleges, with Elizabeth earning a degree in finance.
In 1991 Danny and Helene were able to open a much larger, more upscale and modern restaurant they called Crustacean, specializing in Vietnamese seafood. The success of this venture led to the opening last year of the much more elegant Crustacean in Beverly Hills—now one of the hottest restaurants in Los Angeles.
The remises offer a spectacular and evocative setting for a personalized style of Vietnamese food that Los Angelenos have not previously encountered in the dozens of little storefront eateries around the city. In fact, Crustacean is the kind of theatrical theme restaurant—a genre Hollywood has adored since the days of the Brown Derby—only here the theme is a reverie of an Indochina of the 1930s that the Ans carried with them to America.
As soon as you walk through the door at Crustacean, you are drawn into another world. There is an 80-foot-long, 3-foot-deep river at your feet, filled with rare koi. It meanders through the lounge and into the dining room. Even though it is topped with glass, the river gives pause to everyone who walks over it, past the curved bar with its copper counter and impressive teak-wood wine rack. Then diners enter the airy, two-story dining room with its 45-foot ceiling, skylight, bamboo garden, travertine-marble floor set with Vietnamese coins, and translucent murals of a bygone colonial country at peace.
It is all very dramatic and, when you know the story, very touching. The beautiful Elizabeth An, 32, dressed in Chanel or Dior, greets you at the door of Crustacean and sees to your requests throughout the evening. And if you’re lucky, Helene, now 60, may come to your table and ask what you’d like to eat. At Crustacean, she has utilized her training in Asian herbal medicine to offer food that is not just out of the ordinary but also beneficial to the well-being of her customers.
There are certain dishes in her repertoire that only she, two of her sisters and Elizabeth know how to make; these are prepared in the “Secret Kitchen,” which is enclosed by sheet metal and located off to the side of the main kitchen. It is here that Helene and her relatives produce wondrous signature dishes like roasted crab, garlic noodles with tiger prawns and roasted lobster in tamarind sauce.
The secrecy is essential to Helene’s overview of her life’s experience. “We left Vietnam with nothing,” she explains, “and I began to see that my restaurant had a good chance to succeed. And I saw that I had to do something to guard the key to its success. I had no property or personal wealth to pass along to my children. So, my secret kitchen has become my daughters’ inheritance.”
Beyond those secret dishes, Crustacean’s menu is filled with splendid examples of Vietnamese cuisine whose French underpinnings are evident in the delicacy and complexity of flavors. Vietnamese cooking is not highly dependent on chile peppers, as is the cuisine of Thailand, Korea and parts of China. Then there are several items—like the Dungeness crab puffs filled with Comte Française cheese, or the freshly minced, glazed broiled shrimp on a French baguette—that show the colonial influence of France on Vietnamese cookery.
The appetizers are fragrant with herbs. An Asian bouillabaisse has touches of lemongrass and pineapple. A version of Vietnamese-style carpaccio is treated with Asian herbs, purple onion and a distillation of lemon essence. Chilean sea bass is steamed with scallions and ginger sauce to a perfumed state of succulence. Many dishes are prepared with reductions of California or French wines, like the grilled rack of lamb flambéed in Chardonnay and served with mixed, seasoned greens.
“We take wine very seriously at the restaurant,” says Elizabeth. “People are often puzzled as to what they should drink with Asian food, because of the exotic spices and the oiliness of some dishes. Beer, of course, works very well. But Vietnamese food has a very strong tradition of French delicacy, and the herbs and essences are not quite so assertive. The flavors are meant to be balanced, and I’ve tried to pair wines that would act like a good beer with individual dishes on our menu. There should be a refreshing, cleansing factor to what you drink with our food.”
To that end, Elizabeth has created a solid 140-selection wine list that any restaurant would be proud to offer. The list especially strong in aromatic whites like Gewurztraminer, Viognier, Marsanne and Sauvignon Blanc, which are perfect complements to this kind of food. In addition to some good selections from France, Italy and Germany, the list also boasts lots of the latest hip bottlings from California in all varieties, along with wines from some of the state’s venerable producers.
Most important, every single dish on Crustacean’s menu is paired with a recommended wine, available either by the bottle or in a 4-ounce glass. Those Dungeness crab puffs are paired with Toad Hollow Chardonnay 1997. Colonnara Verdicchio Cru Cuprese 1995 is suggested for the salad of calamari with green papaya, Asian basil and lemongrass vinaigrette. Filet mignon roulades with red potatoes are matched with J. Fritz Zinfandel Old Vines 1996.
In addition, Crustacean offers a page-long list of “martini madness”—about 60 variations—along with a first-rate list of single malt Scotches, eaux-de-vie and dessert wines such as Matanzas Creek Sémillon Botrytis 1986 and Frog’s Leap Very Late Leap 1993.
Crustacean is a well-realized American dream with a happy ending. “We feel very privileged and lucky,” says Elizabeth. “Not just for the financial success we’ve had, but because as women we have been able to achieve something that would have been impossible in Vietnam, where a woman’s happiness depends upon her ability to be a fine host and to serve people with beauty and grace. Then again, maybe we’re not so different. But I do know that my mother, who saw two fortunes lost in her family, puts very little importance on such things any longer. For her, to work and to see her family happy and doing what they want is what has made her life so wonderful.”