By Keith Hadad
Quality and freshness are taken for granted way too often. Chef/owner/giver of everything to the life of his business (and Ithaca College theater graduate ‘07), Sebastian Villa, strives for the excellence of fresh ingredients. So much so that he personally visits the local farms and growers that supply him to observe how the vegetables and herbs are raised (or on certain occasions, to pick them himself!). This care and concern over freshness is very evident when you step into Xeo’s, Villa’s cozy Vietnamese café. When you take your first bite, it’s clear why he takes the extra steps.
Tucked into the heart of Collegetown on 213 ½ Dryden Road, the small, yet spacious, room is vividly painted with cool colors and decorated with small abstract paintings. Bamboo shoots live in glass vases on every table, and other plants grow alongside the front window. This gives the restaurant a personal and unique feeling without being overwhelming. Since Sebastian acts independently, the decorative decisions and style are his alone. As he told me, all of the art, design, menu options and background music are a reflection of himself.
Villa is incredibly friendly and can tell you close to anything that you want to know about what you’re eating. When ordering, I suggest not being shy but to instead strike up a conversation, especially about what’s going into your meal. You will surely walk out of Xeo’s feeling twice as appreciative for not munching someplace else.
The counter has a full view of the kitchen, which makes it easy to observe the simple yet skilled creation of the dishes. Delectable aromas drift and hang in the air while the food is being prepared; all the while you can relax in an atmosphere that is not unlike the one you may find when you visit the dorm of a friend who kindly whips up something quick for you in the kitchen.
A dish on the menu, Banh Mi, is truly deserving of the term “special.” It’s a decently sized sandwich that combines the influence of French, Chinese and traditional Vietnamese cuisine (a “best of Vietnam” in a sandwich, as Villa says). The bread is a toasted French baguette stuffed with Chinese-style ham, French Pâté and Vietnamese sausage. The unique tastes of the three meats blend and complement each other nicely. Now mix that assortment with the sweet, vinegary bite of pickled watermelon radish, the coolness of sliced cucumber and the strong bitterness of cilantro leaves. The rave party of flavors reaches every segment of your palate, each being complemented and forming new tastes inside of your very lucky mouth.
The Banh Mi comes with a small side salad, which is another compilation of very different tastes that weave together pleasingly. It contains thin spears of carrots, purple cabbage, lemon basil, salted peanuts and a drizzle of oil. The beauty of freshness is obvious in these dishes, even just by looking. The hot pink watermelon radish, the near-neon green cilantro and the violet cabbage are so vibrant; it comes to no surprise that they were harvested only days before. How expensive is this delicious dish,
you may ask? Surprisingly, only $6.75, and that includes the side salad. Most weekly budgets could easily work around one of these, thankfully!
Villa’s dream for this eatery came out of the love of the food from his past, a childhood full of food prepared by his Vietnamese family. He had a desire to only use locally grown fresh produce and craft a café that is truly his. One look and you know he’s succeeded—from the food to the furniture, it’s an expression of the owner.
There is nothing cliché here, folks; just great food prepared by a man who loves his work and knows how to eat.
Keith Hadad is a freshman cinema and photography major who spends his nights frolicking around Wegmans. E-mail him at email@example.com.