If the notion of a vegan meal makes you cringe, a dinner at Mai Nguyen's Au Lac might very well change your mind, especially if you are a fan of Vietnamese, Chinese or Japanese food.
Co-chef Ito actually calls his cuisine "Humanese" because he wishes to break down boundaries between people — "we are all merely and wonderfully human." We think their delicious food will make it an easy transition for carnivores to enjoy a vegan meal. Ito is at the helm of the separate raw food kitchen for those already converted to a plant-based diet who want to take it to the next step.
We were surprised to see a bar when we entered this "healthy," attractive storefront restaurant and saw several young people sitting on stools, tossing back a few. On closer perusal, however, we observed that the bottles lining the back wall of the bar were not booze but supplements and juices. Unsurprisingly, no alcohol is served here; however, you can get elixirs, shots and drinks like Love Juice with frankincense, screw pine, sweet grass and cayenne pepper drops or a marga rita-rita with cultured coconut water, Himalayan salt, kombucha gold and lime.
After looking at the menus, we decided to focus on the vegan dishes with just a few raw items. We relied heavily on our waitress' recommendations, as the menu is quite extensive. She encouraged us to try the BBQ pork rice paper roll from the vegan menu and the cali roll from the raw menu as appetizers.
We liked the "pork," which looked like fried pork sausage and had a mild, pleasant, meaty taste. Crunch came from carrot, cucumber, lettuce and chive and brightness from mint leaves, but most of the flavor was provided by the tasty, spicy peanut dipping sauce. This dish alone was enough to erode our prejudice against faux meat. Less exciting but pleasant and refreshing was the cali roll, wrapped in nori with seaweed, coconut meat, marinated mushrooms, pine nuts, avocado, cukes and peppers with a light tamari ginger dipping sauce.
We noticed on a neighboring table some fabulous yellow noodles being slurped up from a steaming bowl of soup. We knew we had to try this dish, and it turned out to be the highlight of our meal. The exquisite light, slightly sweet, black mushroom broth was chock full of fresh chewy vermicelli, Shantung cabbage and a choice of seafood or duck. The "duck" was amazing in that it really had the flavor and texture of duck. No kidding! In classic Vietnamese style, a plate of bean sprouts, lettuce, slices of lemon and jalapeños accompanied the soup, all to be added according to taste. We particularly loved how the jalapeño slices gradually released their heat into the broth. It was just wonderful. Skip the greasy wonton chip spread with fake shrimp that comes with it.
Back to the raw menu for something lighter, a salad called Da Bowl. It was indeed a large salad with romaine, pistachio crumbs, onions, olives, tomatoes, flax and bell peppers tossed in a sweet mustard dressing. It was a perfectly nice salad, although the olives were too acrid for the dressing. What we really liked was the little crunchy, dried, raw nut veggie cracker that came on the side.
The tofu eggplant bowl, a vegan dish, was classic Chinese stir-fried eggplant in a rich sweet, deeply flavored sauce with the addition of tofu. Although the taste was quite scrumptious, it was so oily we could only eat a little bit. (This is often the case with fried eggplant, as it soaks up oil like a sponge.)
We must confess desserts in Asian restaurants are not "a few of our favorite things." All the desserts at Au Lac come from the raw kitchen, which provides an extra challenge for the chef. We tried "donut holes" made from spirulina (blue-green algae) and coconut powder with agave and palm sugar centers, chocolate candies (bittersweet chocolate without butter) and scotch on the rocks (a cute name for something like butterscotch pudding.) Enough said!
We feel very comfortable in recommending this restaurant to people who are not vegans or raw foodies as there are delicious choices for everyone.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If You Go
What: Au Lac
Where: 16563 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley
When: Tuesday through Sundays
Lunch: 11:33 a.m. to 3:33 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
Dinner: 5:33 to 9:33 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
Kitchen tours after 9:30 p.m.
Appetizers: $4 to $9
Entrées: $10 to $14
Information: (714) 418-0658 or http://www.aulac.com