I've always been a hesitant believer in not judging a book by its cover. Yes, I will admit to being hesitant. While I wish I could blindly believe with no pretenses, it's difficult when the world is such a visual place. A beautiful facade on a hotel leads me to believe the service and products inside will also be well done. A gentleman in a nice suit with coiffed hair and polished shoes, well, I actually might believe a lot of things about this man on initial glance, but once he opens his mouth, all is usually revealed quite quickly. Then there's the contradictory illusions of the food world. I've sidled up to a roadside snack stand in the middle of nowhere, not speaking the language, and simple pointing and praying that whatever it was wouldn't land me in the hospital. Rarely has that been the case, actually never, knock on wood, and it's often led to one of the most outstanding and authentic meals. On the flip side, just because there's a white tablecloth down, it doesn't mean that the food or the waitstaff are going to be above average.
That brings me to my latest dining adventure in Culver City. I had heard that the more than capable Jason Neroni from one of my favorite Italian spots, Superba Snack Bar, was behind a new Fraiche Vietnamese restaurant, along with Pitfire Pizza creator Paul Hibler. The two of them teamed up with a duo from Costa Mesa, John Cao and Chef Chloe Tran, to bring their East Borough establishment to Los Angeles. This cast got me interested right out of the gate, and once they launched, I took a quick scan of their website and online menu to seal the deal. The site is classy, simple and quite elegant. I thought this is the perfect place to meet my dad for a long overdue catch up.
Walking in to the wood covered restaurant, we stood examining the plain school room chairs assembled around basic one legged tables. Straws and hot sauce squeeze tubes adorned each table. The menu was a sheet of paper, folded over much like the takeout menus that are shoved in my front door. Hmmm, maybe this wasn't the place to take my dad who was more of a Michelin guy than a food truck one, but we had navigated rush hour traffic, scored parking and were very hungry.
The staff was very helpful in rerouting us after they placed us at a table wedged in between two other couples. I eyed an empty, roomier large booth in the corner and they obliged after a quick scan of reservations.
My dad and I both immediately glommed on to the menu listing of the chef's 4 course $40 menu. We figured Chef Tran who was present at the restaurant while we were there, knew her best dishes, so we'd leave things in her capable hands. Chef Tran grew up eating Vietnamese food and at East Borough she gives her childhood favs with a So Cal spin.
We started with Imperial Rolls which looked like basic fried egg rolls, but one bite quickly shattered that preconception. For me the great differentiator was the taro exterior which is a lighter, less crispy wrapper to hold the spiced fried pork inside. Lettuce and mint were served on the side to pick up the roll and add even more flavor before dipping it into the sweet nuoc mam. A pleasant, and delicious surprise.
The kale salad had some heat to it with pickled red onions, cashews and toasted coconut. The moderately priced, clean Riesling trocken Rheinhessen helped put out any fires with some of the spicier food, and went well with most of the menu.
A crisp daikon rice cake held its crunch while sitting in a lovely spicy soy cilantro broth. The egg was slightly overcooked as we missed out on some good oozing to spread it out over the other ingredients, but still a nice combination of flavors.
I yawned when I heard there was fried rice as one of the courses. What a throw away and filler, I thought. Once again, it was time to reframe my ideas on what usually is a freebie or overpriced item on many Asian menus. This dish was robust and teaming with salty and savory bites, as well as large chunks of moist chicken, cod and rapini. I could come back for that dish alone, but things got even better from here.
A large dish came out with a gorgeously braised pork shank in a slightly sweet crab paste and coconut reduction. Lettuce leaves on the side stood to wrap the succulent pork with accompanying jasmine rice and a zippy collection of pickled vegetables with a little heat. They should offer these veggies as a stand alone side as they were addictive and delicious.
Completely stuffed and already counting over 4 courses of our allotted menu, I looked at the simple, monochromatic dessert plate of what looked like two sad fried egg rolls next to a pot of salted caramel dipping sauce. Catching on to the don't be deceived by looks theme, I grabbed the fried cylinder and gave it a dunk and then immediately was transported to dessert paradise. The fried coating was light so as not to distract from the main event inside of warm, spiced, slightly chunky bananas. The crisp exterior with the soft interior was only enhanced by the salted caramel sauce. Bravo.
I could barely look at the pot de creme when it arrived, already happily filled to the top. I grabbed a spoonful out of the mason jar, and found the chocolate as rich, dense and decadent as expected. A solid, unexpected meal all the way to the end.
This may not be the place you're going to take the in-laws for your first meeting, but then again, maybe you shouldn't place judgement on what people may or may not like. East Borough is very likeable, inside and out.