04/13/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
AT 34, HELENE AN WAS LEADING a privileged life. Raised in the bosom of Vietnam's ancient royal family, she ran a grand household for her loving family and hosted opulent banquets. But a knock on the door of her Saigon mansion on April 6, 1975, shattered her world. A friend told her she had one hour to pack and escape the Communist army that was rapidly taking control of the city. "I was so terrified, all I could think about was my children," An recalls. "My family lost everything."
Everything, that is, but the exotic recipes she remembered from her father's three chefs—recipes that would one day help An flourish in a new life as chef and proprietor of Crustacean, one of Beverly Hills's hottest restaurants. That culinary legacy, a unique blend of French, Vietnamese and Chinese tastes, is so precious that An, now 58, has created an enclosed hideaway within the restaurant's bustling kitchen where she covertly prepares her most treasured specialties, including Dungeness crab and garlic noodles that "could make you cry," in the words of Esquire food critic John Mariani, who named Crustacean one of 1997's best new restaurants.
His view is seconded by a passel of Hollywood celebrities. Warren Beatty comes often with his wife, Annette Bening, and their daughter Kathleen, drawn by those garlic noodles. "The more I eat them, the more often I want them," Beatty says. Newlyweds Will Smith and Jada Pinkett have enjoyed the tiger prawns. Mel Gibson and James Coburn crave the Chilean sea bass. And brothers Jeff and Beau Bridges rave about the grilled calamari and crispy rice paper rolls filled with chicken, black mushrooms and vermicelli.
While her meals tempt the palate, An's place also pleases the eye. "It has one of the most dramatic looks in Los Angeles," says Merrill Shindler, editor of the city's Zagat restaurant guide (even as he rates the meals "overpriced"—entrees run to $30—and portions "kind of meager"). Entering guests literally walk on water—actually a glass-covered, three-foot-deep stream filled with black, white and gold carp. The serpentine brook leads diners to a wooden bridge and an indoor courtyard, and then into the two-story dining area—a sequence conceived by An's daughter Elizabeth, 31, who manages Crustacean, as a recreation of her great-grandfather's estate in northern Vietnam. It was here that Helene grew up before Ho Chi Minh's revolution sent her family fleeing to the south in 1955.
But it was a long way from there to Beverly Hills. The youngest of 17 children of provincial governor and royal-family member Tran Luu Mau and his wife, Duong Nguyet Thuong (who both died in 1975), Helene was married in 1965 to South Vietnamese air force pilot Danny An, whom she joined in the Philippines after Saigon fell. A month later they flew to San Francisco, where Danny's mother was already running Thanh Long, a small restaurant. While working 16-hour days there, An raised five daughters: Hannah, 32, who now manages Thanh Long; Elizabeth; Monique, 27, who runs a San Francisco version of Crustacean; Jacqueline, 19, a college freshman; and Katherine, 18, a high-school senior. Elizabeth shares a six-bedroom colonial Beverly Hills home with her three children, her mother and Danny, now a consultant in U.S.-Vietnamese business deals. An hopes to expand the family's empire by the end of the year to Newport Beach, Calif., and to add a second restaurant in Beverly Hills. "Mom has five daughters and only three restaurants, so we still have two to go," says Elizabeth.
Danny became An's husband the old-fashioned way: in an arranged marriage. "Maybe I was lucky, but we got along," she says. "He didn't think I had to listen to him like a slave. We discussed problems together." That would have shocked her grandfather, an aristocrat with many wives. In his world, "the beauty of a woman was measured by her ability to entertain," says Elizabeth. By that standard, An rates high, judges CBS's The Bold and The Beautiful star Daniel McVicar: "She has the presence of a queen."
ULRICA WIHLBORG in Beverly Hills