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Venue Review: Elements

Almaden eatery combines tastes of Asia, Europe
By "Aleta Watson"

If any community in San Jose needs a good neighborhood restaurant, it's the Almaden Valley. The affluent commuter suburb has a critical shortage of nice places to eat where the menu doesn't come laminated in plastic.
Back in 2000, it seemed the local dining scene finally had come of age when Michael Miller opened the stylish Umunhum in a shopping center storefront at Almaden Expressway and Via Valiente. The food was terrific and the wine list impressive. But the high-tech bubble burst, and Miller scaled back to a simpler format as Bistro Almaden. Then he bailed in 2003. The new owners barely lasted a year.
Perhaps the third restaurant is the charm for this location. Elements, a pleasant 90-seat dinner house with reasonable prices and solicitous service, expects to celebrate its second anniversary this summer. Portions are large and, although some dishes are ill-conceived, the best call for a return visit.
Owner Tristan Huy Trinh is a 29-year-old Vietnamese immigrant who graduated from Del Mar High School in San Jose, majored in aviation in college and now spends his mornings training as an ice dancer. A self-taught cook, he opened Elements at the urging of his family when he found few job openings for pilots after his graduation from San Jose State University three years ago.
The restaurant reflects his personal tastes, blending European and Vietnamese cuisines in sometimes unexpected combinations. Offerings run from fresh spring rolls ($6) and tangy, crunchy green papaya salad ($6) to filet mignon in mushroom and black pepper sauce ($22). The menu even includes ravioli in tomato sauce and burgers with fries as part of Trinh's bid to appeal to a broad range of neighbors.
Located at the end of the shopping center, between a wine bar and a vacant shop, Elements is easy to miss. Look for the neon image of a waiter in the window.
Inside, the dining room is simply decorated with stylized paintings of Vietnamese landscapes in primary colors hanging on earth-toned walls. Lengths of fabric float in a canopy just below the exposed ceiling.
It's a peaceful setting, conducive to conversation. Operatic arias and ethereal choral music waft in the air. Servers hover in the background, ready to refill water glasses, remove unwanted plates and bring fresh utensils.
The two-page wine list -- with sections on ''international reds'' and ''interesting whites'' as well as the expected varietals -- includes a large number of wines by the glass, most for $7.50.
Trinh is a creative cook and some of his dishes are extraordinary. The Dungeness crab Napoleon starter ($8) layers crab in a beurre blanc sauce and luscious chicken confit with crisply fried won ton skins and a thatch of deep-fried carrot threads. Slices of tender, jasmine tea-smoked duck, pink in the center, fan out around a comforting, earthy gratin of thinly sliced taro and white sweet potatoes ($16). The fruity apricot and nectarine sauce and dots of cranberry reduction add a bright counterpoint.
Other dishes, though, suffer from an excess of sweet flavors. Butternut squash with cognac-spiked cream and cinnamon ($6) could have passed for dessert. A disconcertingly sweet vegetable broth undercut otherwise pleasant Vietnamese crystal noodles ($14) -- fat rice noodles swimming with prawns, crab, chicken, mushrooms and bok choy in a large bowl.
My companions and I enjoyed the grilled tiger prawns, hooked around the rim of a martini glass filled with a tropical salsa and a layer of crisp, julienned won ton skin ($7). The tamarind sauce on the barbecued New Zealand green mussels ($7) was a hit, too, although the mussels were tough and overcooked.
Among the entrees, salmon Wellington ($18) was an overwrought dish of thick salmon filet, mushrooms and greens baked in a pastry crust until the fish was mushy and the flavors muddy. Yet the red wine and green peppercorn sauce with the grilled New York steak ($19) was simplicity itself, bringing out the best in the savory beef.
Dessert choices ($6.95) include the familiar creme brulee, a chocolate cake, a dense creme caramel and strawberries over ice cream in a sauce that trumpets its brandy, although Trinh notes that it contains very little alcohol. Best of all is a light peach and coconut Bavarian cake with chunks of fruit in the soft custard icing.

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Sunday, April 2, 2006 - Aleta Watson

European and Vietnamese cuisines merge in this pleasant neighborhood restaurant where prices are reasonable and service attentive. Although creativity occasionally goes awry in the kitchen, the best dishes are memorable. (Aleta Watson, Mercury News)

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