Green Papaya

Los Gatos continues its explosive evolution with yet another sensational dining experience, Southeast Asian-style.

Home Plate: Green Papaya co-owner Anna Shepley brandishes the eponymous Green Papaya Salad, a must-order house specialty.

Home Plate: Green Papaya co-owner Anna Shepley brandishes the eponymous Green Papaya Salad, a must-order house specialty.

REINVENTING ITSELF on a regular basis, Los Gatos has scored yet another dining coup in the form of Green Papaya, the elegant bistro ensconced in the former Double Rainbow slot on Santa Cruz Avenue. Armed with a graceful interior, an exciting menu and a red-hot location, Green Papaya is just one more reason why Los Gatos is giving Palo Alto a cult-status run for its money. The bossa nova stylings of Stan Getz–dining music of choice these days–which filled the two-story interior of the cozy Vietnamese restaurant somehow made perfect sense. After all, these sophisticated rhythms certainly illuminated the trendier lounges and bars of Saigon circa 1965.

More than a touch of Indochine ambiance wafts through the inviting pages of Green Papaya’s menu, long on inventive updates of clay pot and five-spice authentica, noodle specialties and mouthwatering seafood entrees. California cuisine meets Southeast Asia by way of Paris. And yes, the place was packed last Friday night.

The wine list, easily the clearest, most invitingly written list in the area, offers myriad temptation–especially in the region of white wines, so perfect with the spices of Vietnamese cuisine. We chose glasses of a St. Supery 1999 Sauvignon Blanc ($6.50) filled with grapefruit zest, and a lush Pine Ridge 1998 Chenin Blanc/Viognier blend ($5) that went gorgeously with the foods to come.

There’s a distinctly colonial feel in these wood-lined walls with a ceiling high enough to attract a huge, languid fan. Floral arrangements crown a hostess table at the front, and banquettes along one wall are upholstered in cut velvet. More Asian bistro than noodle house, Green Papaya looks smart and acts smart.

Our waitress brought appetizers in large celadon platters, along with smaller plates and huge spoons for our use. I served up several of the exquisite spring rolls ($6.25), along with a splash of rich hoisin sauce and mounds of the fragrant Green Papaya Salad ($7.25)–a house specialty better than anything I tasted in Paris last week.

Tightly filled with noodles, lettuce and pork, the spring rolls are gossamer packages of flavor information, each one crowned by a large prawn embossed by the transparent papery cocoon. But the salad was the meal’s absolute treasure.

Interwoven threads of green papaya, ripe mango and carrots had been tossed together with pungent sweet-hot spicing, spiked with rice vinegar and strewn lavishly with mint and cilantro. Cherry tomatoes set off this vivacious attraction. Created for a sultry climate, the salad was at once cooling and exciting. When you visit Green Papaya, this signature salad is the one item you must not miss.

We both loved Jack’s entree of bistro-style rib-eye steak ($16.95), seasoned with cracked black pepper and sided with a tiny green salad and flawless, opulently perfumed basmati rice. Not one of those mild-mannered filet mignons, this was a juicy, flavorful brasserie steak. This is Asian food that knows a lot about Europe, we both observed, as I enjoyed the spectacle of my whole Dungeness crab glistening under a freshly wok’d glaze of tamarind and garlic ($24.95). If you’ve never tried this seasonal Southeast Asian specialty, Green Papaya is a great place to start. While part of the crab proved slightly overcooked–and in general this messy dish is a whole lot of hands-on work for its small yield–the tamarind sauce was divine.

Encased in a flaming pastry jacket–much to the delight of nearby diners–our banana flambĂ© dessert ($5) made for dramatic visuals. The succulent, warm fruit proved a terrific finish to our meal–though one wishes for a more inventive dessert list, in keeping with the rest of the stylish offerings. Surely this clever kitchen can come up with something either more French or more tropical than Boston cream pie and white chocolate cheesecake.

Sighing, we wished we lived closer to Green Papaya. This is the kind of place that makes one want to get to know the entire menu. Several of the patrons packing the restaurant last week had already become passionate Green Papayans, though the restaurant has only been open seven months.

Definitely stunning. Let me paraphrase the King in saying, Viva Los Gatos!

137 N. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos
Phone: 408.395.9115.
Hours: Sun.-Thu. 11am-9:30pm; Fri.-Sat. 11am-10pm
Cuisine: Contemporary Vietnamese
Entrees: Inexpensive to moderate

This article was originally published in the May 25-31, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley’s Weekly Newspaper.

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