Bui Bistro

Banana flower salad with grilled chicken and Bosc pear by executive chef Patrick Bui of Bui Bistro.

A pearl is the oldest acknowledged gem and for centuries was thought to be the most valuable.

The pearl is often mentioned in folklore and there are many traditions surrounding the pearl.

The pearl I am referring to today is actually a street in Napa. The gem I am talking about is a small and intimate bistro located on Pearl Street.

Bui Bistro is truly a local gem. It surprised me to discover that many residents have never even heard about this unique little spot. I was, sad but true, one of this group, but no more.

It shouldn’t be a secret, so please let me share.

Chef and owner Patrick Bui holds his own amongst a plethora of well known chefs in the valley and he has created a comfortably understated dining venue where splendid French Vietnamese meals are served with great respect for tradition. Tradition, passion and innovation are paired well.

Born in Saigon, and raised mostly in Paris, Patrick immigrated to the U.S. in 1980 and followed the career path laid out for him in the world of mechanical design.

His real passion was cooking. The foods of his youth and his early culture.

Fast-forward about 15 years, when Patrick stepped away from the tools used for mechanical design and picked up the tools of a professional kitchen as he entered the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco.

After working in several San Francisco kitchens, Bui’s first restaurant was realized in 1999, when he opened “Saigon City” in Berkeley, where he primarily served college students with Vietnamese style quick foods. The more upscale Bui Restaurant, also in Berkeley, followed.

Bui and his wife Thi found their way to Napa and in 2010, after several months of renovations, Bui Bistro opened its doors.

When I visit a Vietnamese dining establishment, there is a test. It’s the Pho Test. If the Pho is great then I am assured that the restaurant knows what it’s doing and then I delve into the menu for classics and offerings with a creative twist on favorites.

What is Pho, you ask? Pho (pronounced “fuh”) is a broth-based noodle soup, conspicuous in Vietnamese cuisine. Whether it’s chicken, beef or seafood broth there will be thick rice noodles floating in the broth along with pieces of meat, vegetables and a variety of spices and herbs. Flavors, combinations and spices are the chef’s choice, so the dish can vary slightly from place to place. The secret to a successful and delectable soup is the broth.

Simmering bones and fatty meat pieces in good water (this makes a difference), with spices such as ginger, star anise and cardamom is the beginning. It takes patience. Several hours are required to give all the flavors a chance to realize their full potential. This is where I remind you, dear reader, that if you don’t drink the water coming from your tap because you don’t like the taste, why then would you use it to cook with? Something to think about.

Beef broth is called pho bo, the chicken version is pho ga, and the seafood broth is pho hai san.

As soon as I tasted the pho at Bui, I knew I was in the right place and in good hands. Diners will often add a favorite little “extra” to their pho. I sometimes enjoy a bit of lemon or lime, while others might play with Thai basil, bean sprouts, chili pepper, fish or hoisin sauce.

Try not to fill up on the soup, as tempting as it is. Save room for the refreshing Banana Flower Salad with it’s zesty fresh flavors combining wafer thin slices of grilled chicken, sliced pear and a dressing with it’s brightly balanced acidity. Perfect summer salad and the presentation is just plain fun.

The chicken curry had the perfect balance of spices while the sea bass was wonderfully crispy on the outside and lushly juicy on the inside, with coconut rice and a glass of crisp white wine, it was a delightful pairing.

Oh my gosh, I almost forgot to mention the egg rolls. Light, delicate and filled with shredded goodness. The dipping sauces are sweet, spicy, savory. It’s all there in every bite.

Great place to go with friends and order several items from the menu to share at the table. Another thing to enjoy about the Bistro is the fact that you can have a great conversation during dinner and actually be able to hear one another. Not the case in many restaurants.

Patrick is the consummate host. Patrick alone could keep diners returning to the Bistro just to chat with him. It’s a very personal experience.

He’s definitely accomplished the art of offering classic Vietnamese foods while implementing the techniques he learned from the French. Dishes like the Asian duck confit and bouillabaisse showcase traditional French fare, Vietnamese style. Is it Vietnamese food with a French twist or French food Vietnamese style?

A unique dining experience awaits at Bui Bistro, 976 Pearl St., Napa.

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Diane De Filipi lives in the Napa Valley and leads cooking tours to Italy and Burgundy, France. Visit letsgocookitalian.com or ila-chateau.com/cook-italian for more information.