CLICK HERE if you are having trouble viewing these photos on a mobile device
Top Hatters Kitchen & Bar opened quietly last spring on a dark residential corner of San Leandro. Even an average bistro would have delighted its neighbors, who are not likely to walk the mile to downtown’s Bancroft Avenue, home to Paradiso, at night.
Instead, they’re living next to one of the most eclectic and talked-about restaurants of the year.
Chef-owner DanVy Vu’s restaurant, which she runs with husband and fellow chef Matthew Beavers, defies genre. Its seasonal, from-scratch cooking is based partly on the dishes Vu grew up with as the child of Vietnamese refugees. But there’s also a nod to Italian food. And the horchata is seriously epic.
What it reflects, I feel, is the Bay Area’s diversity, with rustic dishes that you often see across cultures. The couple has also embraced the corner’s history. Top Hatters was once a hat shop owned by Ted and Marie Lee, who made and sold hats together for 65 years. As a nod to the Lees, the new owners have preserved the store’s structure and signage, and added hat-themed craft cocktails to boot.
Here’s our experience on a recent Saturday night:
THE VIBE: Modern yet homey, with floor-to-ceiling windows and lush plants of every sort dangling from shelves.To enter the restaurant, you walk through a massive patio — currently dotted with heat lamps, of course — and into the dining room, with its bamboo-esque ceiling and marble-topped bar. There, you’ll find friendly bartenders, balanced cocktails and enough greenery to induce some tropical feelings. Top Hatters definitely feels like a getaway.
THE FOOD: Vu calls it peasant food — dumplings, slow-cooked meats and elevated takes on street food — but there’s technique and top-notch local ingredients happening here, too. Take the Oxtail & Grits ($36). I grew up with something similar, a Persian version brimming with turnips and served over basmati. Vu’s is laced with snappy heirloom carrots and an orange gremolata that’s fruity and aromatic without being sweet. It was our favorite dish.
The Seared Rice Cake ($11) could be a tie-breaker, though. Reminiscent of a popular dim sum dish, it’s crispy on the outside and deliciously sticky on the inside. The glutinous disk is topped with sliced Chinese sausage, dried shrimp, fried shallots, pork cotton — dried, finely shredded pork — and a drizzle of spring-onion oil. Add a soft-boiled egg ($2), toss all that umami goodness together, and you’ll be wowed by the sophisticated textures and flavors.
Those dishes, like the others on the right side of the menu, are perfect for sharing with one or two people. The items on the left side, however, like the Tissue Bread ($9), a thin roti served with pickled cucumbers and dipping sauce, are less substantial; order two for a table of four. Overall, smaller plates run $7-$14 and the larger plates are $11-$57.
Plant-based eaters will want to get the Seasonal Lettuce & Shattered Crepe Salad ($12.50), or add it to your shared plates. It’s loaded with roasted baby potatoes, fried shallots and quinoa with a preserved lemon dressing and sheets of near-caramelized crepes (there’s that technique) that provide a wow-factor crunch. On our visit, there was also a Cauliflower and Hen of the Woods Mushroom dish ($15/$17) that was flying out of the kitchen.
DON’T MISS: The drinks menu, especially the hard-to-find Viet Egg Custard Coffee ($5.75), which can be made boozy, and a rich Haitian Toasted Rice Nog ($4.50) made with coconut cream and spices. Nine craft cocktails ($12-$13) offer a good choice of spirits, from mezcal and tequila to brandy, vodka, gin and whiskey. I appreciated the minimal ingredients, usually three or four, to better showcase the quality and flavors in the drinks.
PERFECT FOR: Date night or impressing friends with a cultural mish-mash of Vietnamese street food and savory Italian doughnuts. (Psst, order those doughnuts with negronis at the bar.)
DETAILS: Open from 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday at 855 MacArthur Blvd., San Leandro; https://tophatterskitchen.com
San Leandro’s Top Hatters Kitchen & Bar still hottest new East Bay restaurant