Archive for the ‘Cuisine: Vietnamese’ Category

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Dragonfly

January 4, 2006

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Dragonfly is located on Judah, at the edge of the Inner Sunset commerical district. The restaurant is surrounded by humble neighbors (a donut shop, a liquor store, a laundromat, and a billboard), but upon entering, one witnesses a pleasant and very tastefully designed interior:

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Although Dragonfly and The Slanted Door would fall into the same category of contemporary Vietnamese cuisine (which is how Dragonfly bills themselves), these two restaurants are quite different. Slanted Door is designed to be a chic destination restaurant, situated in a very central, high profile location in the Ferry Building, which, these days, features far more salivating foodies than it does ferries. Dragonfly, on the other hand, has a tangibly intimate, neighborhood feel. Practically speaking, this translates into warmer, more accommodating service and lower prices. From a culinary perspective, although there a number of entrees where these two restaurants’ menus coincide, generally speaking, while The Slanted Door tends to take non-Vietnamese dishes and infuse them with Vietnamese flavors, Dragonfly takes Vietnamese dishes and give them a new zing, spark of pizzazz, and dash of imagination.

As a starter, Short Exact ordered the typical spring roll,

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which was served with a nice peanut sauce with flavors that tug the tastebuds in a few different directions simultaneously, while still blending together very well. This was followed by a simple lunchtime entree: stir-fried egg noodles with prawns, eggs, and garlic.

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The noodles were evenly-cooked, the prawns very fresh, and just the right amount of garlic was added to appropriately flavor the noodles. We were slightly disappointed that the noodles were served with store-bought sriracha rather than a more interesting sauce, but sriracha is versatile, so it was fine. This also wasn’t entirely unexpected, given that it was only a lunchtime noodle entree. At dinnertime, Dragonfly moves beyond noodle/pho dishes, and instead busts out a series of meat and seafood creations. The entrees, in general, are not at all unique or radical — but they are executed with imaginative twists. All in all, we would recommend Dragonfly. The service is very warm, friendly, and attentive. Given that it is intended to have a slightly more upscale lean, as compared to typical down-home authentic Vietnamese restaurants, Dragonfly is reasonably priced (compared to the likes of Slanted Door) — and dishes are generally well-prepared. There’s even an automatic trash dispenser in the restroom, for those who are squeamish about handling public trash cans. I would not rank Dragonfly as highly as my very favorite authentic Vietnamese joints, but it is a really nice spot, nonetheless.

RATING:

COST:

420 Judah Street (between 9th Ave. and 10th Ave.)
San Francisco, CA 94122
Phone: 415.661.7755
Hours: Sun-Thurs 11:00am – 10:00 pm; Fri-Sat 11:00 am – 10:30 pm.

Cuisine: Vietnamese
Neighborhood: Inner Sunset

How to get there: The N stops right in front of Dragonfly, and Muni lines 6, 43, 44, and 66 are only steps away from the front door.

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The Slanted Door

January 1, 2006

UPDATE (March 27, 2007): We’ve written an additional review on The Slanted Door, which you can read here. Below is our first review of this restaurant.

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This restaurant seems to be perpetually crowded and bustling, and it’s not difficult to see why. Located in an open and airy space at a prime location in the Ferry Building, the casual elegance of The Slanted Door and the attentive service welcomes hundreds of eager diners daily. They are always crowded, despite being open for both lunch and dinner everyday of the week, and reservations are strongly recommended.

Most important in explaining the appeal of The Slanted Door is, of course, the culinary experience it offers. The restaurant was launched and continues to be run by the Phan family. The location and surroundings of this restaurant may have changed considerably over the years (the upscale Ferry Building, replete as it is now with a gourmet establishments, is, after all, seemingly a whole world away from the old digs on Valencia Street), but what has not changed is the Phan family’s resilient commitment to using always fresh, local ingredients in an innovative way. One glance at the entrees on their menu (and the corresponding prices) make it clear that the Phans have actively pursued the path less traveled (when compared to typical Vietnamese fare), but with often delightful results. The grilled ahi tuna

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and oven-roasted halibut

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were both pristinely fresh, and both were very well complemented by thoughtful salad garnishes. The halibut was served with a ginger-based fish sauce that wonderfully highlighted the flavor of the fish, and the ahi was served with a soy-ginger base well-suited to it. One of the cornerstone principles of Vietnamese cooking is establishing a balance between highly contrasting flavors (such as spiciness and sweetness). Even though there is nothing especially unique about ahi tuna served with a soy-ginger sauce, what makes the dish stand out is the close attention paid to the balancing of diverse flavors. Although this dish cannot be called Vietnamese, it is nevertheless true that when this dish is served at a purely Western restaurant, it is much less imaginative. The subtle flavoring makes all the difference in the world. Although The Slanted Door functions in a different plane of existence from the typical Vietnamese restaurant, it pays homage to long-abiding characteristics of Vietnamese cuisine.

Nonetheless, it is important to remember that Slanted Door is not a “real” Vietnamese restaurant. It isn’t fusion cuisine, and one can only really say that the flavors here are Vietnamese-inspired. The food here is pure and well-prepared, but the flavors aren’t quite as deep as what one encounters at a really good authentic restaurant, which we believe justifies giving it only 3.5 stars, rather than a full 4 stars. Nonetheless, authenticity isn’t really in the mission statement. Don’t come here expecting it to be authentic, because you’ll be disappointed, and probably bitter at the fact that you paid a lot more than you would’ve had you gone elsewhere.

But if you’re willing to open your mind (and your wallet) to look beyond pure authenticity, we think you’ll enjoy what The Slanted Door has to offer: interesting flavors, quality ingredients, and a generally refreshing approach.

RATING:

COST:

1 Ferry Building #3
San Francisco, CA 94111
Phone: 415.861.8032
Hours: Everyday 11:30 am – 2:00 pm, Sun-Thurs 5:30 – 10:00 pm, Fri-Sat 5:30 – 10:30 pm.

Cuisine: Vietnamese
Neighborhood: Financial District

How to get there: The Slanted Door is within easy walking distance of Muni lines 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 9, 12, 14, 21, 31, 38, 41, 71, F, J, K, L, M, N, T, and the California Street cable car line. BART and Muni Metro riders should use Embarcadero Station.

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Pho Hoa – Embarcadero Center

December 1, 2005

San Francisco’s Embarcadero Center now houses one of the latest branches of the huge Pho Hoa chain. These restaurants never offer great pho, but they nonetheless vary quite a bit, in terms of quality. Unfortunately, the new Embarcadero Center location is probably one of the worst we’ve been to, in addition to one of the most expensive. If you scroll down to the bottom of this review, you’ll see the cost is rated as a borderline $$. Unfortunately, this is not a typo. Embarcadero Center’s Pho Hoa does indeed charge almost eight dollars – eight dollars!! – for a regular bowl of pho. The picture below proves that this is no joke:

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Sorry about the poor, blurry quality of the last photo. We think it’s probably due to the fact we were shaking with outrage at the prices. At most pho joints, one could practically order two bowls of pho for the same price. The prices here are probably a direct reflection of their rather swanky (for pho) digs,

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not to mention the high rents charged by Boston Properties for coveted square footage in Embarcadero Center. Unfortunately, the extra cost doesn’t seem to have contributed to the food quality at all, as the fare here is below average. Actually, we ordered a hot and sour seafood pho, but we didn’t get hot and sour; instead, we received a poor imitation of a standard broth. The soup base was flat, uninspired, and generally unimpressive, while the noodles were so unevenly cooked that the combating textures had a jarring effect on the tongue. This was by far the worst bowl of pho we’ve had in recent memory. It wasn’t authentic, but this is to be expected from a member of the Pho Hoa chain. Nonetheless, better (and cheaper) pho can be found even at other Pho Hoa chain restaurants – and one can sample even richer and more flavorful pho at one of the Bay Area’s more authentic Vietnamese restaurants. For your enjoyment, here are pictures of the soups we (Short Exact and dining companion) ordered:

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It is well-known that attentive, courteous service is not the hallmark of the typical pho joint. Pho Hoa Embarcadero Center, however, brings lack-of-service to a whole new level: when you order your bowl of pho here, you get a complimentary side dish of attitude. Short Exact and our dining companion were actually having a conversation during this meal – so the length of the meal took somewhat longer than it would’ve if we had just kept only to eating, without any talking. As were leaving, the restaurant staff felt the necessity to point this out to us, by remarking, “Well, that certainly took you a long time!” For context: the restaurant was still at least 45 minutes away from closing time when we left, and it was almost empty, so it wasn’t as though we were using a precious table that another customer was waiting to use.

We suppose that daytime workers in Embarcadero Center and the nearby office towers might find Pho Hoa an adequate place to get lunch. All in all, though, the strange experiment of transplanting pho into corporate surroundings was not successful. If you want to have a truly memorable pho experience, we suggest heading elsewhere. But stay tuned: before you know it, we will probably have many-a-post for superior pho joints for you to try — brought to you by Short Exact.

RATING:

COST:

Three Embarcadero Center (street level)
San Francisco, CA 94111
Phone: 415.399.9099
Hours: Everyday, 8:00 am – 10:00 pm.

Cuisine: Vietnamese
Neighborhood: Financial District

How to get there: This restaurant is in a very transit-rich area, served by Muni lines 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 9, 12, 14, 21, 31, 38, 41, 71, F, J, K, L, M, N, T, and the California Street cable car line. BART and Muni Metro riders should use Embarcadero Station.