April 7, 2010

Say What? Say “Oh.”

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Xeo’s, in Collegetown, is a relatively new local restaurant started by an Ithaca College graduate in 2007.Sebastian Villa, a 2007 Ithaca College graduate in art history, stands behind the counter methodically chopping carrots. Dressed in basketball shorts and a t-shirt, he exudes a sense of calm, an ease that begs you to relax, enjoy, have a good time. Originally from Corpus Christi, Texas, Villa is half-Vietnamese, half-Mexican. He started working in restaurants at 16 and stayed in  it as a source of income. He eventually reached the management level, but realized looking after 30 employees wasn’t much fun. Villa noticed how well Asian restaurants did in Ithaca, and with the lack of a traditional Vietnamese places he found that he was just “tired of Mexican food.” He found a small spot in Collegetown, and Xeo’s was born.

Xeo’s Café (pronounced “say ohs”) sits in a small space across the street from the Big Red Barber. The name comes from a Vietnamese dish called banh xeo, which ironically, Villa admits isn’t on the menu. “It was more for visual appeal,” he said. The restaurant is tiny only with 14 seats but its character could fill a Cheesecake Factory. Every element from the music playing off his iPod to the paintings on the walls that he made to his books that litter the bar is a reflection of Villa. To eat there is to enter Villa’s home, to relax in his living room while he makes you a sandwich. Literally, though, you can carry on a conversation with Villa as you eat. A completely open kitchen allows a rare interaction between customer and cook. “I wanted people to see who was making there food, how it was being made,” Villa said. So feel free to ask where your pork came from, how the growing season is going or who Villa’s favorite actors are. When eating at Xeo’s, you never feel like a customer. Villa treats you as a friend.

Xeo’s is very much a local restaurant. On a chalkboard menu is a statement proclaiming that 85 percent of what you eat here has not traveled more than 50 miles from its organic field to your compostable plate. The menu also lists all of the ingredients used at Xeo’s along with the farms they came from (including Rembrance, Seneca Lakes and Berkshire). After joining a local Community Supported Agriculture group, Villa became interested in not only where the food was grown, but also when and how it’s grown. He believes that local, organic food doesn’t have to be fine dining — why not sell organic street food? By buying directly from farmers, he rarely spends more than $1.00 a pound for produce, a savings that is reflected in Xeo’s prices. If you ever stop by the restaurant during the posted open hours, only to find it closed, it’s probably because Villa is at a farm, picking up produce. By making daily trips, he is able to serve produce 15 minutes after it was picked from the soil. Beat that, Moosewood.

The menu is small, with only four dishes as of now. Three of those are variations of banh mi (pronounced “bang mee”) — a plate of traditional Vietnamese sandwiches served on mini-French baguettes with cucumber, pickled local purple haze carrots and watermelon radish. One variations, the specials, is anunctuous combination of Chinese BBQ-style roast pork, Vietnamese sausage and pork liver pate. The Homestyle, for the slightly less adventurous, has grilled pork marinated in lemongrass and is topped with cilantro and a lime vinaigrette — an ideal marriage of sweet and salt. The Vegan version pairs BBQ tofu with a mushroom-walnut pate. A hearty bowl of pho (pronounced “fuh”) rounds out the menu. Rice noodles are served in a beefy broth and topped with onions, herbs, bean sprouts and thinly sliced beef brisket and steak. I highly recommend washing lunch down with a cup of ginger apricot tea, or a mug of Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk. This dark, velvety elixir is perfectly sweet and bitter; you’ll never drink Seattle’s Best again.

The one drawback to using purely local ingredients? If it’s not growing, it’s not on the menu. Villa says this desire and anticipation only amplifies the satisfaction of the first harvest. Check back in a month or two for summer rolls and noodle salads. Until then, the pho is waiting.  RLD

Original Author: Harry Flager