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April 26-May 2, 2006

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First Bite

154

By Molly Jackel

I like a Vietnamese restaurant with busty beer posters on the walls, grandpa playing cards in the corner and big bottles of the Rooster and chopsticks waiting for me on the table. I don't need fancy decorating, so long as I can get a giant bowl of pho with tasty, meaty broth, lots of noodles and handfuls of hot chiles. That said, it was a nice little surprise to find such tasteful décor along with the fine pho at 154 Vietnamese in Petaluma.

The imperial rolls, the fried ones, filled with pork ($6.95), were served with a nice pile of leaf lettuce, mint, cucumbers and sprouts (though some cilantro would've been nice). The wrapper was super crisp and bubbly, the real deal, the inside savory and succulent, but a little mushy, though still a better representation than most.

The rice crêpe ($8.95) was my favorite dish of the day. Also super crisp and beautifully browned, it was studded with chicken and shrimp and folded over a mound of crisp fresh bean sprouts. This is always a subtle dish, more about texture than strong flavors, but the batter had a great coconut taste and was one of the best versions of this dish I've had. The fried squid ($9.95) was overcooked and rubbery, but we finished it off anyway because the crisp coating was so tasty. This one was the only real miss.

We also had to order the pho beef noodle soup ($7.50), to check out the broth, which was great and managed to circumvent my star anise issue. Some restaurants really overdo it with the star anise. But this broth had just a hint of it, giving it that signature exotic taste without overdoing it. Everything else in the soup (beef brisket, eye round tendon and meatballs) was right on.

We ordered a plate of sautéed asparagus, but green beans came instead ($7.95). No matter, the dish had lots of little chunks of mellow garlic and nutty daikon radish and a great smoky flavor just like a vegetable dish I loved in Bangkok that they liked to light on fire.

Softly glowing light fixtures on the wall, handmade out of onyx, are set above a chocolate leather banquette; the floors are a rich, dark wood and the curtains a shimmery gold. The place presents like nouvelle Vietnamese, which you know can be pricey and disappointing when a joint in a strip mall has cheaper and more authentic food. But I was pleased to find that the food at 154 is traditional, and the meal, though not strip-mall cheap, was pretty reasonable; nothing we ordered was over $10. The nouvelle things about it--the understated, stylish décor and the cold beer on draft--are new-school flourishes I can live with.


154, 154 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. Open for lunch and dinner daily. 707.763.2328.


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Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.