Michelia: A Flower Grows on Third Street
A powerful yet delicate flower of a restaurant named Michelia has quietly been growing a customer following on Third Street near Robertson for five years.
Owner-Chef Kimmy Tang named it after the Asian blossoms and here are many comparisons between the two, beginning with the challenge of finding enough adjectives to describe, delicate and rich. Both “Michelias” bloom year round with “a delicate fragrance beautifying its surroundings” and each officially represents the “essence of joy,” the flower with it’s fragrance that is made into the world’s most expensive perfume, and the restaurant with sophisticated, richly flavored, French-influenced Vietnamese cuisine, savory yet practically priced.
Kimmy’s passion for the culinary is apparent in Michelia’s refined atmosphere and cuisine, which she remembers already in full boom at an early age in Saigon. “When my mother took me to the toy store,” she laughs,” I headed for the kitchen section. I even had a play restaurant set up at home to serve my childhood friends!”
Her parents also took the children to afternoon tea for special occasions at the famous Saigon Hotel Rex. The spirit of the hotel can be felt in the plush, almost formal décor at Michelia even though art nouveau fixtures have replaced the ceiling fans and diners tend to talk across the three rows of snowy white tablecloths with high backed plush chairs – easy enough to do while contemporary soft music plays in the background.
Kimmy spent two years designing and planning the earth-toned restaurant and did most of the work herself, from the back wall of water sliding down a beautiful stone backdrop, replicated in the artfully plated dishes, most with elaborate veggie flower garnishes.—which Kimmy is only too happy to take apart and show how they are put together on one of her frequent trips outside of the kitchen to visit briefly with guests at each table.
Thin as a fashion whippet, Kimmy herself is a whirlwind of hands-on energy. She has been working in the restaurant industry since her family left a life of luxury in Vietnam for a more hard scrabble one in Bakersfield in 1986. Kimmy threw herself into hourly work in the food business, moving up from bus-person to waitress, kitchen helper, chef assistant, and manager, always with the distant goal of her own restaurant in mind. .
In 1995, she came to Los Angeles to attend the Fashion Institute of Design Merchandising (FIDM), where she earned a degree in Fashion Design in 1998 while perfecting her cooking for “no fewer than 20 at her house every week.”
Michelia’s dishes are testimony to Kimmy’s inspired creativity. The dishes stand solo but are much more fun to share with more to taste and talk over, as seen in the groups of diners inside and on the casual patio with Asian fountains out front, ranging from fun loving students to sleek tourists who discovered Kimmy on her myriad of website references Ann, our friendly, well informed server worked the entire room and knew our names by the second visit.
Inventive Kimmy keeps the menu fresh with new dishes and events. Sake and food pairings are offered, along with a 7-course Vietnamese Beef Dinner during each season. Almost all of the dishes hold four servings.
An amuse bouche delivered straight away is a small dish of uniquely pickled sliced vegetable. It’s a challenge to guess the ingredients of the flavor combination that turns out to be powdered plum, sugar, and rice vinegar, let alone the crunchy pickled green papaya, so compellingly tasty we asked for a second helping.
Chilled Saigon Rolls ($7.95) are a perfect, refreshing introduction. The lovely wraps are sliced at an angle into four pieces and artfully arranged with overlapping pieces placed diagonally on the plate, accompanied by Plum Dipping Sauce. Shrimp sautéed in lime leaves, chili peppers and ginger are rolled with jicama, cucumber and mixed greens fill each one.
A veggie version from an entire Vegan Menu Section is prepared with shredded carrots, black mushrooms, jicama, cucumber, and fresh mint leaves. An exceptional Spicy n’ Sour Soup ($8.95) is soothing in both hot of cold weather because of the zesty chili spice. Here a tasty tamarind broth is infused with lemongrass, large, plump veggie shrimp that float on top, plus straw mushrooms, baby corn, red bell pepper, carrots, peas and pineapple chunks.
Another favorite appetizer is the regal Scallops Grand Marnier ($12.95) , deep-fried scallops served atop the Vietnamese shrimp crackers with a delicate Grand Marnier sauce and a dab of cavier.
New on the menu are playful little Mini Burgers ($10.95) arrive on a thin slice of baguette and remain fashionably French and Asian with a special garlic aioli and a tiny big of curry.
Kimmy labels her Shumai ($7.95) “innovative” since she updated the steamed dumplings pork filling with a more subtle and sophisticated mixture of shrimp, chicken and crab, then capped each one with masago cavier.
The Lamb Dumplings ($8.95) are also made contemporary and light with the lightly pan fried lamb dumplings prepared in a reduction of beef broth complete beef bone and onion, and served the Chef’s own spicy soy dressing.
Dotted throughout the restaurant tables are the two current signature dishes – “current” because Kimmy constantly adds new items to the menu to keep it fresh.
The Crispy Sole filet ($17.95) breaded with crunchy, crunchy, crunch panko is golden fried and topped with the chef’s original spicy French-style dressing.
Note: For those who cannot do without this sublime, tangy taste, Kimmy has a line of her dipping sauces, including this popular French Aioli Sauce. Aioli is a Provencal mayonnaise similar to garlic sauce, and Kimmy’s smooth and creamy version provides a sweet and spicy kick that sets it apart. Also in the line are Black Pepper, Basil and Papaya Chile sauces that can be used as dressings as well.
The Michelia King Crab Legs ($27.95) are a statement in themselves and cover the entire plate with a full pound of Alaskan King crab legs, wok-fried in a piquant sauce of scallions, garlic, shallots, black pepper & chili. Prawns can be substituted for $ 19.95)
Rounding out the meal was the bowl of simply coconut rice that complemented each of the other dishes. A more hearty brown rice is also on the menu.
Desserts for those who have room are purchased frozen fruit shells filled with fruit gelatos, thoughtfully served at room temperature. There is a even chocolate version for the chocoholics.
Prices are moderate, especially for those sharing a meal and for the outstanding, friendly service and beautiful atmosphere.
Michelia 8738 W. Third Street (near Robertson), 310.276.8288. www.micheliabistro.com