The honeymoon's over for Asian fusion in San Francisco--and now things are really getting interesting. . .
The culinary wedding of our generation—the one between flavors East and flavors West—was preceded by a stormy courtship played out in the jet-set restaurants of California. Looking back, we can see it wasn't quite love at first sight. After blushing East met boisterous West, both partners clung to their families and traditions, compromising only as they had to. The classic smoothness of French sauces was disrupted by a conspiracy of Asian spices; upstart Thai tastes jarred with the time-honored Tuscan table; noodles battled for our attention with novelty pastas.
Now, a decade or so after the consummation, the experimentation has settled to a simmer. The fits, fads, and compromises of those early years have reached a kind of equilibrium: chilies, curries, and stir-fries share house with brick-oven pizzas and balsamic vinegar in a state of post-colonial bliss.
Nowhere is the union in better shape than here in San Francisco, at whose kitchen windows the first serenades were sung. Smart, well-matched combinations and striking separates have become the order of the day. And while it might be fusion-as-usual among the city's Western chefs, Asian immigrants unveil bright new versions of fragrant ethnic cuisines on an almost daily basis. If their parents were obliged to tailor their ways to American tastes, the younger generation can revel in the purity of homeland traditions. As a result, sparkling sushi, perfect pho (Vietnamese noodle soup), and drop-dead dim sum are all here in the cooking capital of the American Pacific.
Not only tastes, but formats, too, seem to be caught in the spiral of invention. Small food looms big on the restaurant scene, and tsumami, the tapas of Japan, is the current rage. At YOYO BISTRO—formerly Elka's, now presided over by George Francisco and provocatively labeled a "Tsumami Bistro"—you can sample from a tasting menu whose offerings arrive on a lilliputian bookshelf holding tiers of fish-shaped plates. Each dish is a fugue of flavors on a Pan-Asian theme. The slices of spiced beef on a bed of Oriental slaw leave a haunting aftertaste of Thai red curry; the crab and mandarin salad perfumed with galingale (a Thai cousin of ginger) hums sweetly with citrus and zest.
The appetizers on this "Frapanaise" menu represent the Orient, but most entrees offer a surprising counterpoise to these flavors. Brown French reductions were the foil for two main courses: slow-roasted "melted duck" with bacon, sauteed spinach, and tomatoes; and grilled steak with root vegetables and beef cheeks. You couldn't really fault either dish, but after tsumami this seemed like a case of fusion confusion—like watching Grand Illusion after the latest Jackie Chan movie.
Asian Beer Hall
After Yoyo Bistro, where else is there to graze?One answer is BETELNUT PEJIU WU, the latest success story from the Cindy Pawlcyn restaurant group (which also includes the Fog City Diner). Pejiu wu, the menu informs us, are the beer halls of Taiwan, where one drinks draft beer "alongside plates of fresh local fare known as street food." The menu offers a mix-and-match selection of smaller and larger plates from around Asia, with tastes tamed to match boutique-lined Union Street outside.
I had dishes here that ranged from very good (tamarind chicken wings) to tired (limp fried calamari and dry tea-smoked duck). But this is a concept restaurant—clever design, photogenic crowd, good bar, and great prices—where you don't expect the food to be anything more than an afterthought. For grazing, it sure beats beer and nuts.
Eating Chinese is as American as, say, chop suey. Yet even today, beneath its sweet-and-sour veneer, the world of Chinese food culture remains an enigma.
Those who venture beyond the corner Szechuan into the big, brightly lit world of new Hong Kong-style restaurants often encounter what seems like an invisible bamboo curtain. Large Chinese families happily devour tea-smoked squab and flowering chives while the rest of us, intimidated by the waiters' lack of English and a menu the size of a telephone book, hastily order up the familiar lo mein. The best policy is to be inquisitive: Walk around, peer at people's plates, point, and ask for translations. You won't impress a date with suave manners, but you'll end up with a good meal.
There's no need to embarrass yourself at HARBOR VILLAGE, however. One of the first big-time Cantonese restaurants to open in San Francisco, it meets all the requirements of a platinum-chip Hong Kong establishment: it's got a high-tech kitchen, a maze of private banquet rooms, and a superstar chef. Wok wiz Andy Wai can prepare 900 dishes; so rigorous was his training that it took him three months just to recognize all the sauces.
The suave manager, Clifford Chow, welcomes Western diners as though they, too, were Asian execs about to squander corporate fortunes on ducks' tongues and alligators' paws. The best bet here is to gather a large party for a multicourse banquet. Start with the nouvelle Peacock Blossom Platter, a rainbow of assorted Chinese cold cuts. Then follow a proper Chinese progression, with soup in the middle and a whole fish at the end. Stir-fried scallops in smoky XO sauce (made with chilies and salted ham) should give way to a bright platter of greens. Soup could be classic (snake) or less menacing (winter melon), followed by Peking duck, a meat dish (such as pan-fried pork loin), and a crustacean. The penultimate item is usually a starch (no steamed rice, please; it's considered an insult to the chef); the exquisite fried rice with sun-dried scallops will fit the bill. Finish with a perfectly steamed fish, a Cantonese symbol of good luck. Those dining in smaller groups can have a mini-feast of roast squab, stir-fried greens, and fish.
The Pacific Perfected
In a town overflowing with vividly authentic ethnic eateries and stylish signature restaurants, one wouldn't necessarily think of dining in a hotel (the Ritz-Carlton notwithstanding). But should you wish to reconsider, choose SILKS, in the Mandarin Oriental, the classiest hotel chain in the Pacific. "A men's club with a coupla flowers," blurted my dinner companion in his thick Chicago accent, as we walked into Silks, a calm room with pricey flower arrangements.
The charm here comes from the gracious service and the warming glow of the food, prepared by Palestinian-born chef Rabah Abusbaitan. Our salmon tartare with caviar and pickled ginger vinaigrette brought together rich, salty, sweet, and sour flavors with an elegant sense of proportion. A lanky composition of seared scallops piled on a delicate eggplant ragout, with crunchy jicama underneath, in a sauce perfumed with exotic Thai kaffir lime, made my companion exclaim, "Elevator food! Penthouse: scallops. Ground floor: jicama." But even he agreed that the dish was a triumph. And he became unusually quiet as he devoured the incredible rare squab, precariously balanced on a wonderful corn-bread cake surrounded by an apple-flavored reduction. "Tall, but tasty," was the verdict. The dessert, coconut praline napoleon, was equally inspired.
Brightest Dim Sum
Luckily, San Francisco is still a city that values taste over trends—just look at the long weekend queues at TON KIANG, a dim sum heaven in the ethnic neighborhood of Richmond. In this pink, cheery two-floor restaurant (intimate, by the convention-hall-esque standards of most Cantonese restaurants) you can treat yourself to the best bites in town—a parade of textural masterpieces fashioned from top-notch ingredients. The steamed dumplings here are ethereal, the deep-fried offerings shatter in your mouth, and even such normally uninspiring, workaday standards as roast-pork buns are so fine you understand in a flash just why they became a classic.
To do dim sum Chinese-style, don't gorge yourself on dumplings only. Bid for the larger specials from the cart: sensational soft-shell crab in season; juicy soy chicken; Hakka wine-braised fish; lovely stir-fried greens. The a la carte menu is just as good; the dishes have a third dimension of flavor that lingers on your palate like exquisite tea. In Chinese, dim sum means "your heart's desire," and clearly this is food that transcends the stomach.
While tourists may fall for red-lantern Chinatown chintz, discerning locals know that some of the best Asian food is to be found in Richmond (though cognoscenti now also flock to San Jose). STRAITS CAFE, one of Richmond's jewels, is a Singaporean restaurant that delivers a rare combination of authentic tastes and stylish surroundings. Chef-owner Chris Yeo has become something of an ambassador for Singaporean cuisine in the United States—which means he's constantly feeding visiting dignitaries from the island. As Singaporeans have famously demanding palates, it's no wonder he's had to keep on his toes.
The room looks like a movie set from Indochine, replete with second-story balconies, potted palm trees, flowing burlap curtains, and theatrical lighting. The cuisine, however, is the real thing, laced with the Malay, Chinese, and Indian influences that make up the complex culinary map of Singapore.
Yeo is constantly dreaming up new dishes. A recent tasting included yu san, a gingery, sweet, and tart salad of greens and seared ahi, and a wokful of superb mussels coated with fiery bits of pepper and garlic. But don't neglect tradition. Selections include the flaky roti prata bread with a mild curry dipping sauce.
To anchor the meal, try the salmon stuffed with lemongrass and lime leaves and grilled in banana leaves; the tandoori beef (here spicy grilled flank steak served rare with a puffy Indian bread); or a joyfully messy chili crab, Singapore's national treat. Add fabulous dessert specials and an intelligent wine list and Straits Cafe comes out a winner.
Wouldn't you expect vertical food at a hypertrendy restaurant named VERTIGO?I anticipated looking at giddy architectural creations hovering on my plate and making me as dizzy as Jimmy Stewart in the Hitchcock classic. But the best restaurants of San Francisco have learned to keep a safe distance from the cutting edge, and the food at Vertigo is blissfully horizontal.
As the proprietor, Doug Washington, informed me, Vertigo's name refers to the atmosphere, a mixture of high and low, flashy and understated. (Imagine Gap, Comme des Garcons, and Chanel strutting on a single runway.) The mega-designed three-floor space is crowned by a mesh-veiled skylight whose moire showers mellow light onto the tables. The wine list is sophisticated, the atmosphere electrifying, and the prices comfortable, with most entrees less than $20.
The menu glides between the Orient and the Mediterranean with the cool confidence of Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief. I loved the appetizers: sashimi of Hawaiian tuna with a small heap of black rice; plump tea-smoked quail with pears, offset by sprightly orange sauce; and a rice-paper roll of crab and mango. Though the entree of grilled tuna on a bed of cellophane noodles was a tad dry, it didn't matter. I'd come back anytime.
Lingering over a glass of sauterne and some tart blood-orange sorbet, basking in the autumnal colors of the room, a little starstruck by its metallic glow, I mused: If this is what a great culinary marriage has achieved at the end of its first decade, I'd like to be on the guest list for the golden anniversary.
Noodling Around Town
For noodle lovers, San Francisco is the Garden Of Eden. Pasta pleasures aside, where else on this side of the Pacific can you find such a delightful tangle of dough from all over Asia?If udon's your thing, lunch at IROHA (1728 Buchanan St.; 415/922-0321), a humble Japantown eatery that turns out one of city's best versions of this fat, slurpy noodle. Thread your way through the bazaar of Asian eateries on Richmond's Clement Street and you'll hit TAIWAN RESTAURANT (445 Clement St.; 415/387-1789), where a whole encyclopedia of Chinese noodles is yours to delight in. Just a few blocks away, delicate Vietnamese rice noodles star at PHO TU DO (1000 Clement St.; 415/221-7111). What's best here: pho, a fragrant soup loaded with noodles, your choice of meats, and a flourish of aromatic herbs.
1611 Post St.
dinner for two $60
BETELNUT PEJIU WU
2030 Union St.
light meal for two $35
HARBOR VILLAGE RESTAURANT
4 Embarcadero Center
415/781-8833; dinner for two $50
multicourse banquets start at $30 per person
Mandarin Oriental Hotel
222 Sansome St.
prix fixe dinner $39 per person
5821 Geary Blvd.
dim sum for two $24
3300 Geary Blvd.
dinner for two $45
600 Montgomery St.
dinner for two $65
Prices listed above do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
T&L's newest contributing editor, food columnist ANYA VON BREMZEN, is a former concert pianist and the co-author—with John Welchman—of "Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook," which won a James Beard Award for best international cookbook. Their second and latest is the "Terrific Pacific Cookbook," out last November from Workman Publishing. She applies that expertise to her report on restaurants that establish San Francisco as "the American capital of Pacific Rim cooking."