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Of Rice and Mein

Persimmon on the Square adds to Healdsburg's culinary diversity


PHO FOR YOU The classic beef noodle soup is one of the strongest items on the menu at Persimmon.
  • PHO FOR YOU The classic beef noodle soup is one of the strongest items on the menu at Persimmon.

In spite of the culinary riches around Healdsburg's town square, Asian cuisine is not well represented. Four-month-old old Persimmon on the Square helps fill that gap, albeit with mixed results.

The menu draws on several cuisines—Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Thai. There's even a quasi-Hawaiian dish. Therein lies the problem. It's difficult enough to master one cuisine. Adding others in the spirit of comprehensiveness usually results in mediocrity.

Starters are excellent. The shrimp and pork dumplings ($9), served with slices of watermelon radish in a shallow pool of spicy soy sauce, are plump, juicy and delicious. The bulging spring rolls ($10), loaded with rice noodles, julienned carrots and avocado, are good. I loved the poke salad ($16), fresh greens and sliced English cucumbers tossed with avocado and ahi in a yuzu-soy sauce vinaigrette. A sprinkling of caviar gives each bite a satisfying, briny pop.

Chef Danny Mai emigrated from Vietnam, and he remembers the flavors of his homeland well. The pho ($16) is a classic version of the noodle soup and served with a flourish: the aromatic, star-anise-spiked broth is poured from a silver pitcher over the noodles and thinly sliced brisket, cooking the raw beef in the process. Some of the beef remains on the chewy side, but the wonderful meatballs that also populate the bowl make up for that.

My favorite dish is the banh mi ($14), another Vietnamese standard. The contents of the lunch-only sandwich change daily, and on my visit it was grilled pork. The juicy, expertly charred pork is a great counterpoint to the tangy, crunchy pickled carrots and daikon radish.

Those are the highlights. Here's the blooper reel. The Chinese chicken salad ($18) is more American than Chinese, but it's got no identity here. Wanly dressed greens are paired with a few ragged hunks of sauteed chicken, as if they were tossed on as an afterthought.

The mapo tofu ($16) is a bigger disappointment. The dish is a classic of Sichuan cooking that's known for the pleasing (to me) numbing heat of the peppercorns and the fiery chile sauce that lacquers the vegetables and tofu. Persimmon's version has no detectable heat or Sichuan peppercorns. It's bland, wok-fried vegetables and tofu. What it lacks in spiciness it makes up for with copious amounts of oil.

Service is well-meaning but amateur. Servers don't remember who ordered what ("Who gets the chicken salad?"), and long waits ensue when the place is busy. When I complained about my insipid mapo tofu, my server said she'd pass my sentiments to the kitchen and then came back 10 minutes later to ask if I wanted the kitchen to redo it. Too late.

The restaurant is a good-looker. Asian art blends with modern lighting and fixtures to create a comfortable, urbane dining room. The small, open kitchen adds to the restaurant's visual appeal. There are also a few small tables out front on the sidewalk.

There's a well-chosen wine list. The sparkling wine and Riesling on the menu are ideal matches for Mai's menu. Pick the right items, and you'll enjoy this little pan-Asian outpost in an area crowded with pizza, Mexican food and Mediterranean cuisine.

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