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Larkin Express Deli

May 31, 2007

Short Exact has been terribly busy lately (which explains the lack of posts recently), but Larkin Express Deli — a restaurant located (funnily enough) on Larkin Street, in the shadow of the old Federal Building on the Tenderloin/Civic Center border — is a restaurant we’ve been meaning to write about for several weeks now, and we didn’t want to wait on this any longer, since it’s a special sort of spot. On the surface, it looks unremarkable, like any standard deli,

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and the generic name “Larkin Express Deli” does nothing to discourage that notion. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, Larkin Express Deli has a bit of a split personality. If you click on the above image and enlarge it in Flickr, the menu written on the chalkboard looks like a fairly standard American deli menu, including a variety of burgers, meat plates, and sandwiches (such as turkey, chicken, meatball, roast beef, pastrami, reuben, and others). However, lurking beneath the surface of this seemingly commonplace deli is a second menu, consisting of several authentic Burmese specialties — including such favorite, classic dishes as the catfish chowder moh hinga, the tea leaf and ginger salads, and the chicken coconut soup ong noh kau swer. Note: we have not ordered any of the American deli fare, only the Burmese dishes, so this review is based exclusively on the Burmese food, and this post has only been filed away in the Burmese cuisine category.

On a recent visit, we ordered the chicken coconut soup,

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and it was a delight. The noodles were perhaps a touch softer than we would have liked, but they were still pleasantly chewy (not the least bit mushy), and they thoroughly absorbed the flavors of the soup. The soup base was a deliciously layered and well balanced mix of curry and coconut milk, with a deep underlying chicken flavor from the stock. Chunks of tender, moist, flavorful dark meat chicken were scattered throughout the soup, and the fried peas added crunch and an additional flavor dimension. Considering the very reasonable price ($5.50, at the time of this post) for this generous portion of soup, the garnish of fried peas and fresh cilantro was unexpected, but very much appreciated.

We also ordered one of our favorite Burmese standards, the tea leaf salad (la pat dok), to go. We sort of mumbled in passing that we would probably end up trying a bit of the salad in the restaurant, just as a sample, and we expected to simply take a bite or two out of a to-go container. Imagine our surprise when a small portion was served on a plate,

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a plate that was even green to match the hue of the green tea leaves that are the centerpiece of this dish. This was a simple gesture, but it helps to demonstrate the genuine and thorough service here, which was all the more unexpected because the words “express” and “deli” in the restaurant name do not immediately suggest that there should be good service, or even any service at all.

Of course, the portion of salad in the above picture is just a small fraction of the much larger full portion. This dish was a touch oily, but it contained a delicious mixture of textures and flavors, with numerous ingredients, including garlic, peanuts, split peas, sesame seeds, wedges of tomato, and the namesake tea leaves. The centerpiece of this dish is, of course, the tea leaves, which feature a wonderfully strong, pungent flavor that is complemented well by the other milder ingredients. No corners were cut, as these tea leaves were imported straight from Myanmar. Notably, the la pat dok does not include any Western salad greens (which less traditional versions of this dish will sometimes use, perhaps to make it appear more salad-like to Americans), and the fact that the tea leaves are the only greens present helps to emphasize their role in the salad. When all is said and done, the la pat dok is a lovely, flavorful mixture.

Visiting this restaurant was a great experience. We dropped by later in the afternoon, when we were one of few customers, and this gave us the chance to chat with Dennis, the owner, for quite awhile. (Dennis also runs the Tennessee Grill restaurant, out on Taraval, which we have not visited. Unfortunately, there is no Burmese food to be found there!) Our chat not only revealed what a genuinely friendly person Dennis is, but also the care and effort which has gone into crafting the Burmese side of the menu. While the American half of the menu is a legacy of the previous owners (and, we imagine, the sandwiches and burgers are probably popular at lunchtime for office workers in the area), the Burmese half of the menu is a labor of love, in which Dennis showcases the cuisine of his native country, and the time and care that is put into these authentic home-cooked Burmese dishes shine through clearly. Combined with the kind and caring service, this restaurant has all the homey comfort that one might experience eating in a friend’s kitchen.

For Burmese east of Divisadero Street, look no further than Larkin Express Deli.

RATING:

COST:

452 Larkin Street (between Golden Gate Ave. and Turk St.)
San Francisco, CA 94102
Phone: 415.474.5569
Hours: Mon-Fri, 10:00 am – 7:00 pm.

Cuisine: Burmese
Neighborhood: Tenderloin, Hayes Valley/Civic Center

How to get there: Muni lines 5, 19, 21, 31, 38, 47 and 49. The restaurant is 4-5 blocks from lines 6, 7, 9, 71, F, J, K, L, M, N, and T (Civic Center BART/Muni station).

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Kaygetsu

May 17, 2007

It seems hard to believe that one of the Bay Area’s best Japanese restaurants is located in a quiet strip mall in the hills of the Peninsula city Menlo Park, and yet, this is the case — sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Located in a strip mall off of Sand Hill Road, with Safeway and Longs as its neighbors, the small restaurant Kaygetsu is a hidden gem of the first order. It leads a mild-mannered existence, quietly serving diners one of the finest kaiseki menus (perhaps the very finest) to be found in the Bay Area. Kaiseki, a tradition originating in Kyoto, is a multi-course meal originally intended to accompany the tea ceremony. It has since evolved away from its tea ceremony origins, but there is a focus on careful preparations of seasonal ingredients. True kaiseki is an art form unto itself, an exquisite combination of art, beauty, and cuisine working together in perfect harmony.

The focal point of Kaygetsu’s mission is to provide an authentic, high quality kaiseki menu. The menu changes every six weeks (twice each season) and directly reflects the fish and vegetables that are in season at the time. These menus are constructed by Kaygetsu’s kaiseki chefs, Shinichi Aoki and Katsuhiro Yamasaki, both trained in Kyoto. The focus on kaiseki is no small feat in this corner of the world, whose population largely views Japanese cuisine as consisting exclusively of tempura, teriyaki, and sushi — or so you’d think by looking at the menus of most Bay Area Japanese restaurants. Now, Kaygetsu does have a sushi bar in the corner with a separate sushi menu (consisting mostly of nigiri and a few token rolls, of the simpler, more traditional variety such as tekka maki — no crazy Dragon Rolls here!), and several a la carte cooked dishes are also offered — but the raison d’etre is really the kaiseki menu.

We will get to the kaiseki in just a bit, but there is one other important thing to note. Although Kaygetsu focuses on kaiseki, Toshi-san, the itamae at the sushi bar, is one of the finest sushi chefs to be found in the Bay Area. It is a pleasure to watch his hands, nimble and deft, form, within just a few seconds, masterpieces of nigiri sushi construction — dead-on precise slicing of the fish, and perfectly proportioned fish and rice. Like kaiseki, the craft of sushi is another art form of sorts, and watching Toshi-san rapidly but expertly sculpt perfectly-sized pieces of nigirizushi is a treat. The fish at Kaygetsu is of very high quality, but it is also expensive. A combination of the high quality fish and the fact that this restaurant does not focus on sushi contributes to the high prices; a single piece of nigiri is usually at least $3.50, and much more than that for the “market value” items. Toshi-san does not keep a really extensive fish supply, but he has a few special items which might appear in the sashimi course of the kaiseki. The selection is still much better than what you would find at your average neighborhood corner sushi restaurant, but because of the focus on kaiseki, the selection is not as stellar as you might think it would be, given the quality of the fish. The somewhat smaller fish supply prevents the sushi bar at Kaygetsu from attaining the legendary status of the old sushi bar at Anzu under the helm of Takahashi-san (who, regularly, on a good evening, carried at least few dozen distinct fish types, some quite difficult to find elsewhere) — sadly defunct and very much missed, since Takahashi-san has left San Francisco. Nonetheless, in terms of chef skill and fish quality, Kaygetsu’s bar is one of the best, most authentically Japanese sushi bars to be found in the Bay Area, and it definitely warrants a separate trip.

Enough about sushi, though: we had our eyes set on kaiseki. The kaiseki experience is subdued in atmosphere, but sublime in terms of the cuisine, making it an excellent choice for a Mother’s Day dinner last week. We had the late spring kaiseki menu, which features 6 courses, followed by a final dessert course. First up was the sakizuke starter course, which featured three delectable, carefully-presented morsels:

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From left to right in the picture: (1) amaebi (sweet shrimp) enveloped in gelatin, (2) sea urchin and kisu, served fried, with fava beans, and (3) perfectly seared slices of white tuna topped with a light sauce from shiitake mushrooms.

The starter course was immediately followed by a seasonal assortment of sashimi (served with fresh wasabi): a delicate preparation of snapper, treated with the lightest ponzu sauce,

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and slices of hon maguro (blue fin tuna) and shimaaji (stripe jack):

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The hon maguro was rich and almost pillowy, while the shimaaji had an excellent texture: just the right level of firmness and initial resistance that melted away after a few seconds, with a bright lift in the flavor occurring later in the process of chewing. All three specimens of fish were very good.

Next was the takiawase course, which featured assorted slow-cooked vegetables:

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Included are dried tofu, bok choy, fuki (giant butterbur), konnyaku (a potato-like vegetable in the taro family that is valued for its medicinal properties), and kabocha squash. A delicate preparation of these excellent ingredients masterfully preserved the individual taste and texture of each component, with the clear fish broth tying together all elements of the dish. Highlights here included the lovely sweetness of the kabocha squash, and the distinctly sponge-like texture of the tofu: upon biting the tofu, a small rush of broth would leak out, much like a sponge. The release of liquid invites at least a small comparison to the rush of soup that comes from biting into a xiao long bao (Shanghai soup dumpling), but this version is more subtle and nurturing.

The fourth course was the sunomono,

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with barely blanched fresh octopus and white kikurage mushrooms, which had a thin, wonderfully elusive, chewy texture. Both octopus and mushroom paired well with the plum sauce, which was not the least bit cloying.

The yaki mono was attractively displayed,

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featuring delicious, colorful, perfectly cooked vegetables (including potato, daikon, and bamboo shoots) layered atop a piece of domestic Kobe beef from the Snake River area. Although the beef was slightly tough, it was also highly flavorful, with nice notes of ginger and soy.

The sixth course, and the last of the main meal courses, was the gohan mono, which included a hearty, nurturing dark red miso soup with a touch of mustard, and a small bowl of rice cooked with tender asari clams:

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The seventh and last course was the dessert course:

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A black sesame gelatin was served with pristine strawberry slices, resting in a pool of kuromitsu, which is essentially a Japanese molasses. The flavors here complemented each other perfectly, and the dessert was an excellent end to the meal.

This is one of the best, if not the very best, kaiseki experience to be had in the Bay Area. We’ve never been to Kyoto, so we can’t compare this to the original, but this is definitely the best kaiseki experience we’ve ever had. As you might expect, it does not come cheaply — as of writing this review, the kaiseki menu is $95 per person, with an optional $34 sake pairing (we did not order this). There is also a 17% service charge automatically added to the bill, which functions in lieu of a gratuity. Obviously this is not an everyday sort of meal, but it is a wonderful experience for a special occasion, and we feel that the quality justifies the price. It’s also probably a bargain compared to what this might cost in Kyoto, and there’s no airfare. The menu featured a diverse set of dishes, excellent ingredients that were carefully prepared, and lovely presentation. In addition, the service was excellent. Our server was very knowledgeable about every detail of each course, and he paced the delivery of the courses well, allowing enough time for us to savor each dish and enjoy conversation, but never leaving us wondering when the next course would come. In terms of both the service and the food, Kaygetsu offers a first-rate dining experience. Bravo.

RATING:

COST:

325 Sharon Park Drive (near Sand Hill Rd.)
Menlo Park, CA 94025
Phone: 650.234.1084
Hours: Tues-Fri, 11:30 am – 2:00 pm; Tues-Sun, 5:30 pm – 9:30 pm. Closed Mondays.
A note on reservations: Kaiseki (dinner only) requires that reservations be made 48 hours in advance, but because the restaurant is small, you may want to allow even more time, to help ensure you get the time slot you want. Since the kaiseki meal does take at least a couple hours, only a limited number of seatings are available each night.

Cuisine: Japanese
Neighborhood: Menlo Park

How to get there: Kaygetsu is not at all in a transit-friendly location, so we can’t provide detailed public transit info like we usually do. The restaurant is located on the free Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) Marguerite shuttle bus line, so it’s not impossible to reach via transit, but for all practical purposes, you will probably just want to carpool.

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Revisiting Namu

May 9, 2007

A few months back, we visited Namu, then an essentially brand new restaurant in the Inner Richmond offering Asian-inspired small plates, mostly showcasing the flavors of Korea and Japan. In our first report about this restaurant, we mentioned that while the food was good, the fact that it is a contemporary or “fusion” restaurant demands more challenging dishes and a higher level of creativity than what we experienced. To be sure, part of the reason we felt that way was that we went at lunch, rather than dinner. It only seems fair to investigate some of the dishes that are special to the dinner menu, so one evening we did exactly that.

A traditional Korean meal will feature a collection of banchan, smaller side dishes that are meant to accompany the main entree. There are many varieties, but the most famous of these is kimchi, a fermented dish of vegetables; very often this is cabbage with chili peppers, but there are many varieties. Despite the fact that Namu does not generally serve precisely traditional Japanese or Korean dishes, there is a nod to the tradition of banchan, since every dinner at Namu begins with a banchan plate:

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Only one serving is complimentary, but the banchan plate appears on the menu (for $2.50) if one taste is not enough. The two portions on the left were simple preparations of carrot and shiitake mushrooms, while the sample on the far right is of course the kimchi, made in-house, which was our favorite of the three. The cabbage was crisp and fresh, and the spiciness was balanced, clarified, and focused, as little sparks of pepper danced on our tongue. It was a nice way to begin the meal.

Next up was the scallop carpaccio,

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consisting of Hokkaido scallops, cilantro, small cubes of tomato and a touch of delicate yuzu vinaigrette all atop thin rounds of cucumber. The thin, confetti-like strips of cilantro and the small of touch of acid from the tomato helped to accentuate the delicate sweetness of the scallop. The flavors here are subtle, not bold, but still satisfying. These scallop bites are actually reminiscent of nigiri sushi, and eating them in a similar way seems to be the best way to go. The traditional way to eat nigiri is not only to dip the fish (not the rice) side in the soy sauce, but also to place the piece fish-side down in one’s mouth, so that the neta (the fish slice) makes immediate and direct contact with the tongue. With this dish at Namu, the more uniform taste and texture of the cucumber slice may conceal the action on top of the slice, and so just like with nigiri, flipping each piece helps to emphasize the textural and flavor contrasts of the scallop, cilantro, and tomato.

The shiitake mushrooms from the banchan plate made a repeat appearance,

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this time hiding in fresh, neatly-wrapped dumplings — garnished with scallions and thin seaweed strips, and resting in a mushroom dashi broth. Good ingredients were used, and the dashi paired well with the mushrooms in the interior of the dumplings pouches, but to our taste, the dumplings could have used a contrasting flavor to enliven them.

The last dish was the eggplant,

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which was served with a tasty onion sesame vinaigrette. The texture of eggplant can sometimes be difficult to work with, but the eggplant in this case was cooked just the right amount and held up very nicely, benefiting from the contrasting texture of the katsuobushi (bonito) flakes. As you can see in the picture, the eggplant slices have nice grill marks on them, and the dish has good presentation; the flower carved from carrot emphasizes that the eggplant is sliced into pieces that look like the petals of a flower.

All in all, we had an enjoyable meal at Namu. Dishes are generally well-prepared and use good ingredients, and although service was perfectly friendly on our first visit, it seemed to be even more knowledgeable, expert and polished the second time around. In the first post, we mentioned that even though the food was good, we personally would not have cravings for the dishes at Namu (even though we regularly have cravings for the more traditional dishes that are the inspiration for Namu’s offerings). This is still the case, but it’s all a matter of taste, and we are glad we returned to dinner to try more of the menu.

Although one can obviously order a full meal’s worth of food here, in our mind, Namu’s ideal role is less that of a traditional restaurant, and more of a lounge, a place to unwind and socialize with friends over a few well-prepared “Asian tapas bar bites” and a glass of sake or wine — not exactly an izakaya, since the atmosphere is different, but somehow similar in spirit. Ironically, as of our last visit that led to this post (the actual restaurant visit was in April, not May), Namu had still not procured its liquor license. Fighting through the bureaucracy to get this license can be frustrating, and we certainly do not hold it against them that the details are still being worked out; rather, we are glad that they are being persistent. However, in our view, the character and spirit of Namu will really blossom once the drink aspect is introduced to accompany the dishes, which often consist of just a few bites, making them ideal to share with a small group. For our first review of Namu, restaurant co-owner Dennis Lee was nice enough to drop by and leave a couple notes in the comments section, indicating that the restaurant would soon offer wine, beer, and sake, and that the sake part of the menu was being compiled by Seana Adachi, who has lived, worked with, and learned from sake masters in Japan. This should be an interesting development when it gets off the ground.

In light of this second visit, we’d like to update our original rating of Namu:

RATING:

COST:

Please scroll down to the bottom of our original post for restaurant location and hours. Since our first review, Namu has introduced a brunch menu, and the hours have been updated to reflect this change.

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Naan ‘n Curry on Van Ness

May 1, 2007

Naan ‘n Curry, that ever-expanding empire of cheap, mediocre curry restaurants in San Francisco and the East Bay, has, in recent months, conquered more territory and set up a new province — this time, at the corner of Turk and Van Ness, in the border region between Civic Center and the Tenderloin.

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We’ve been going to Naan ‘n Curry restaurants in both San Francisco and the East Bay for years upon years now; they have such a cult following here, it is essentially impossible to avoid them. Whenever going out with friends for a meal, someone is bound to suggest “Well, what about Naan ‘n Curry?” Then someone else will say: “Yeah, great idea!” By that point, the damage is done, and our attempts at countering this train of thought usually fail, especially since their well-placed restaurants are often frustratingly accessible. Anyway, the end result is many trips to Naan ‘n Curry. In a post from last year, in which we reviewed various locations of Naan ‘n Curry en masse, we essentially put forth the following opinion: sometimes Naan ‘n Curry can produce some decently tasty dishes, and other times they are not at at all tasty or well-prepared. All in all, everything averages out to a mediocre 2-star experience. The fare at Naan ‘n Curry is by no means the “best of the Bay.” The obvious draw here is the cheap price, but it is always worth noting that restaurants like Darbar manage to serve superior fare for perhaps slightly higher (but still entirely comparable) prices.

So, given this opinion, why would Short Exact ever go to a Naan ‘n Curry on our own, voluntarily? Well, the main reason is to respond to readers of this blog — not directly, as no one has ever emailed us to specifically ask for a review of the new Van Ness Naan ‘n Curry. However, we’ve noticed that increasingly, many people doing Google searches end up on this site by typing in strings like “naan n curry van ness”, and the like. Now, we haven’t reviewed this particular branch before now, but we have reviewed Naan ‘n Curry, and one of the neighborhoods listed in the side bar at the right is “Polk Gulch/Van Ness.” The combination of these two text strings has led people to this site, even if this restaurant didn’t specifically appear here. At any rate, we felt bad about all the people who came here looking for a Van Ness review but didn’t find it, so hopefully this post will fill in that gap.

Naan ‘n Curry restaurants are never stylish, but this particular branch has a surprisingly fun, comfortable, well-put-together interior. With the branch on O’Farrell (on the border of Union Square and the Tenderloin), this is probably one of the nicer looking branches. The dining protocol is exactly the same, though: study the menu while standing near the doorway, order your meal at the counter, and then bring your own plates, silverware, and water to the table.

We ordered the chicken biryani:

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This dish was acceptably good, and it was of better quality than what we’ve largely come to expect out of Naan ‘n Curry. A recurring problem with Naan ‘n Curry is having to wade through pools of excess oil on the plate, and while this dish was oily, the oil was generally kept in check — although this is at least partly due to the fact that we did not order one of Naan ‘n Curry’s trademark watery curries, opting instead for the biryani, a dish of chicken and rice. The basmati rice added an aromatic touch, and the cumin and cardamom (both should have been more pronounced) managed to permeate through to rather moist, surprisingly tender pieces of chicken, although the dish was a tad oversalted. As the above picture makes clear, the presentation of this dish was not exquisite (with the chicken rather unceremoniously buried beneath the mounds of rice), and this preparation somehow lacked the wonderful characteristic fragrance of an excellent biryani, but overall, this was surprisingly decent. On the grand scale of things, not great, but definitely pretty good for Naan ‘n Curry.

Service seems to be a touch slower than at other branches of Naan ‘n Curry, but we couldn’t say for sure if that’s true in general, since we’ve only made this one visit to the Van Ness branch. At any rate, it’s a little hard what to make of this trip, since it is only one visit. Is this Naan ‘n Curry truly better than the other branches, or did we just happen to stumble upon a decent dish? To be certain, we’d have to go a few more times, but for now, we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. This post is not a ringing endorsement, though, so take it with a grain of sea salt.

RATING:

COST:

690 Van Ness Avenue (at Turk St.)
San Francisco, CA 94102
Phone: 415.775.1349
Hours: Mon-Thurs, 11:00 am – 10:00 pm; Fri, 11:00 am – 11:00 pm; Sat, 11:30 am – 11:00 pm; Sun, 11:30 am – 10:00 pm.

Cuisine: Indian/Pakistani
Neighborhood: Polk Gulch/Van Ness

How to get there: Muni lines 5, 31, 38, 47, and 49.

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Le Cheval: Quit Horsing Around

April 20, 2007

Le Cheval is a Vietnamese restaurant located at 10th and Clay in downtown Oakland, a few blocks from Chinatown and the City Center. Really, though, it’s not just a Vietnamese restaurant in downtown Oakland. It’s the Vietnamese restaurant — certainly not because it’s the best Vietnamese in the immediate vicinity, but just because of its reputation and history. The restaurant has been around since 1985, and in downtown Oakland — an area that is currently in the midst of a revitalization (or gentrification, if you prefer), but for many people, is still synonymous with crime, empty streets, and urban blight — that is indeed saying something. In the 1980’s, many people fled the city in response to its high crime rate, and the buildings downtown emptied out. The Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 essentially sealed the deal, because once the buildings became uninhabitable and physically unsafe after the earthquake, there really was little reason for people to stay. Downtown Oakland, once a bustling boomtown and the cultural heart of the East Bay, became a neglected ghost town. Of course, there were workers in the area during the week from 9-5, but come nights and weekends, the area pretty much evacuated — a hollow skeleton lacking flesh and blood to give it life. In the past few years, renewed interest in the area has brought about an influx of new apartments, bars, clubs, and restaurants. It is a work in progress, though, and even now, almost 20 years after the earthquake, downtown feels quieter and more subdued than it should.

What does any of this have to do with Le Cheval? Well, Le Cheval stuck around, through thick and thin, when very few others did, and for that, Short Exact would like to give them a gracious nod and word of thanks. Combined with Chinatown (the only part of downtown Oakland which has remained thoroughly and consistently bustling throughout this whole period), Le Cheval became one of the beacons of light that city politicians could rally around and point to, as evidence that the downtown area would one day soon come into its own again and regain its rightful place as the pulsing urban heart of the East Bay. Former mayor Jerry Brown was particularly fond of this restaurant, and he often mentioned it in connection with his own extensive (one might almost say obsessive) effort at breathing new life into the downtown core.

It isn’t hard to see why he has a fondness for this place, beyond just the fact that they stuck around when most others left. The decor of the large restaurant floor, unsurprisingly, features lots of horses (for any Francophobes reading, “cheval” is the French word for “horse”), and provides an atmosphere that, while on the noisy side, is a cut or two above what you would find at a hole-in-the-wall. There is also a feeling about Le Cheval that is distinctly Oakland, one which you won’t necessarily find that often, even at other establishments in Oakland, and it is a noticeable contrast to the hyped “see and be seen” mentality that characterizes many restaurants in San Francisco. Oakland may be somewhat grittier, rougher around the edges, and less fashionable than its elegant, foggy cousin across the Bay, but it has a refreshingly casual, down-to-earth attitude that is in evidence at tables all over the large, spacious floor of Le Cheval. It is a cliche (but nonetheless, a true cliche) that one of Oakland’s greatest strengths is its diversity, and there is a comfortable, organic, and completely unforced sort of diversity that we’ve consistently observed in the people eating at Le Cheval — and it is not as common as you’d think it would be, even here in the Bay Area, a region fond of touting itself as a bastion of diversity.

We don’t usually give this sort of historical/sociological introduction to restaurants, but it seemed to be an appropriate thing to do for Le Cheval, because while our last visit demonstrated a noticeable decline in terms of both food and service, we still wanted to convey the affection we have for this restaurant, in spite of any possible decline.

Anyway, after all that text, you probably want some pictures to rest your eyes a bit, so without further ado, let’s move onto the food:

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This was the goi sua sen, a salad full of steamed shrimp, cabbage, thin strips of jellyfish, lotus roots, and cilantro and mint leaves, all topped with a garnish of chopped peanuts. This was a light, refreshing dish with fresh ingredients, but as often seems to be the case at more Americanized Vietnamese restaurants, the dressing, based on fish sauce and vinegar, was too light (read: bland) . The salad would have benefited from a dressing with more body. We also started with an order of (what else) but the goi cuon shrimp rolls, with vermicelli, mint, and lettuce wrapped in rice paper. The rolls were not exemplary, as some of the greens were not at maximum freshness (old and wilted), and there were random holes and sloppy sections in the wrapping.

Our entree was the lemon grass calimari (muc xao xa ot), served with white rice,

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and unfortunately, this was also sort of a disappointment. Despite being labeled “spicy”, the dish was not the least bit so. Hints of a flat, one-dimensional curry and lemon grass emerged, but even though this sauce drowned and completely overpowered the calimari, it was not nearly as flavorful and aromatic as it could have been. Meanwhile, a lot of the character, bounce, and crisp texture had been cooked out of the onions and the calimari, giving many pieces a rubbery profile. The dish did not taste reheated at all, and it wasn’t terrible, but it was mediocre and unnuanced. We would mostly likely not order this dish again, especially with so many other choices on the menu.

In the past, the service at Le Cheval was always closer to brisk and efficient than courteous, but on our most recent visit, the service was inexperienced and indifferent, at best. An awkward delay passed between the time we placed the order and received the appetizers, but then the entree arrived just seconds later, right on the heel of the starters. The servers insisted on crowding all dishes into one corner of the table rather than spreading them out in a more useful way, and so we were forced to rearrange the whole table ourselves into a suitable format before eating. There weren’t any mistakes made in the order, so the service wasn’t horrible, but the prices, while reasonable, are not exactly cheap (most entrees pass above the $10 mark), and we don’t think it’s unfair to expect at least somewhat better service at this price point.

Generally, we were pretty disappointed in Le Cheval after this visit. Le Cheval was never great Vietnamese food, nor was it ever the best in downtown Oakland, since this area (including Chinatown) has a fairly dense cluster of Vietnamese restaurants. It is, however, an Oakland institution, and even if their cuisine was never the best, it was usually at least decent, and oftentimes quite good — good enough to warrant return visits. It has been some years since we were last here, and it is sad for us to see a restaurant with this much history decline. Business still seems to be good, thanks to its reputation, but reputation can only carry you so far, if there is a lack of substance to back it up.

Anyway, we sincerely hope that Le Cheval quits horsing around. This restaurant, with over two decades of history, has long been an anchor in a once flailing downtown area, and now that downtown is finally starting to blossom and be recognized in the way that it deserves to be, Le Cheval needs to get its act together so that it can continue to keep its place as a loved institution for many years to come.

RATING:

COST:

1007 Clay Street (at 10th St.)
Oakland, CA 94607
Phone: 510.763.8495
Hours: Mon-Sat, 11:00 am – 9:30 pm; Sun, 5:00 pm – 9:30 pm.

Cuisine: Vietnamese
Neighborhood: Downtown Oakland

How to get there: The restaurant is only a few blocks from the Oakland City Center/12 St BART station. AC Transit lines: 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 19, 40, 43, 51, 63, 72, 82 and 88.

Note: There is another branch of this restaurant, “Le Petit Cheval” in Berkeley, but this review only covers the main Oakland restaurant.

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Hayes & Kebab

April 16, 2007

Hayes & Kebab is a relatively recent addition to the restaurant scene in Hayes Valley. Of course, it offers Middle Eastern fare — a more or less standard collection of items: mainly gyros, kebabs, and a handful of sides such as hummus, tabouleh, and baba ghanoush. They also offer full entree plates (featuring a kebab and a side dish), as well as some specials, posted on the board right outside the front door.

In terms of the menu, this is a fairly standard gyro and kebab joint. However, in terms of the decor, it is definitely not standard. Hayes & Kebab is located right on the edge of the increasingly fashionable corner of Hayes and Gough, and it looks like the owners have decided that such a chic address required chic decor. Okay, maybe the decor isn’t exactly chic, but compared to your standard kebab joint, it’s quite an upgrade. Decorations are draped around the room, along with several framed pictures; there is some nice wooden furniture, and the seating area is actually a pleasant place to linger. Prices here are somewhat higher than expected (it’s part of the “Hayes Valley experience,” right?), but it is still a more inexpensive alternative to the upscale joints in this area, such as Absinthe and Jardiniere.

Anyway, the room here is nice, but the main question here is: did the food deliver? We ordered an adana kebab wrap:

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One quick glance at this photo tells you that not only has Hayes & Kebab has upgraded the restaurant decor, but it has also upgraded the plating. To be honest, we find it borderline ridiculous that we are even using the word “plating” in the context of a kebab joint, but there’s a first for everything. Although it sports a foil wrap, our adana kebab sandwich had been sliced on a bias and arranged attractively; the plate had even been sprinkled with parsley. Usually, doing a review for a burrito or gyro type place requires that we cut the wrap in half first before taking a picture, but in this case, Hayes & Kebab did the work for us.

Having said that, we would have preferred more attention be spent on the cooking, and less on the plating. The wrap was acceptable, but not great. The vegetables were crisp and fresh; however, the spicing of the meat needed a considerable extra dose of strength and pizzazz. The wrap was also somewhat dry, and the tahini sauce used on the wrap tasted watered down, so that the sandwich lacked a really nice flavor depth. The sandwich should also have been served with warmer bread. We did not get an opportunity to try the hummus, but from what we could tell by glancing at neighboring plates, it looked to be pretty good. Obviously, we cannot vouch for taste, but the hummus looked to have a somewhat dense consistency, and it was properly garnished with olive oil, sprinked parsley, and paprika.

One note is that the service at Hayes & Kebab, while friendly, is definitely on the slow side. It took 17 minutes for our wrap to be delivered to the table (yes, we timed it), which is pretty slow for a kebab joint, especially considering that the restaurant was not that full, and the only item we ordered was a wrap.

All in all, the food here, based on our one sampling, seems to be okay, but not noteworthy. We certainly wouldn’t make a special trek here — since the dressed-up Hayes Valley decor doesn’t really do much for us, personally — but we might stop in again for a bite before a concert, especially since this increasingly upscale neighborhood does not really have a plethora of “cheap eats.”

RATING:

COST:

406 Hayes Street (between Gough St. and Octavia St.)
San Francisco, CA 94102
Phone: 415.861.2977
Hours: Sun-Thurs, 11:00 am – 10:00 pm; Fri-Sat, 11:00 am – 11:00 pm.

Cuisine: Middle Eastern
Neighborhood: Hayes Valley/Civic Center

How to get there: Muni lines 5, 6, 7, 21, 47, 49, 71, F, J, K, L, M, N, and T. Closest underground stations are the Muni Van Ness station (4 blocks away) and BART/Muni Civic Center station (5-6 blocks away).

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Back to Perbacco

April 11, 2007

A few months ago, we visited Perbacco, a relatively new addition to the Financial District specializing in the cuisines of Piemonte and Liguria, two regions of northern Italy in close proximity to France. We had a fantastic lunch there, and every aspect of that experience was spot on, including prompt, attentive, and helpful service, and of course, delicious dishes featuring high quality ingredients and very good preparations. As positive as this experience was, it still was only a single experience, and for some time now, we’ve planned on a return visit to see if Perbacco could live up to our expectations by providing another whiz bang meal. This time, though, we went for dinner, since the dinner menu has some different options, including a small handful of crudo dishes (creative preparations of raw fish) that are not available at lunch. The big question, though: did this dinner live up to the standard set by the lunch from a few months ago?

Well, one thing is for sure: the starting salad certainly did not. If you read our first review of Perbacco, you might recall we were a fan of the beet salad, both for its delicious combination of contrasting flavors and for its bright, diverse colors. We enjoyed the salad so much that Short Exact and dining companion ordered it again at this dinner, but unfortunately, it did not live up to the expectations set by our first experience. Actually, the salad looked as though it had been only partially finished but accidentally brought out to the table anyway, as it was noticeably smaller (with far fewer gold and red beets) than the dish we received at lunch a few months ago. The Castelmagno cheese had the same great flavor and crumbly texture as before, but the whole salad was dry, and the promised white balsamic vinaigrette was nowhere to be found. We really should have just sent this dish back, but we were also on a time crunch to make it to a Symphony concert, and the salad was not the focal point of the meal in any case, so we just brushed the whole thing off.

Next up was the uni (sea urchin) crudo:

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This crudo had a nice bright flavor furnished by the lime and kumquat, while the small slice of Serrano chili included in each bite of the crudo added an appropriate amount of heat to finish it off. Still, the impact of the Serrano was somehow too disconnected from the lime and the kumquat; we were hoping for the effect of these different ingredients to be more unified, but instead, the trajectory of each single crudo bite was a little abrupt. Meanwhile, the delicate brininess of the uni was overpowered by the other elements of the crudo, so the main contribution of the uni was its nice creamy texture, rather than its flavor. Not perfect, but this was a pretty good crudo. We didn’t have the opportunity to try any of the other crudo dishes, but on the day we visited Perbacco, four crudo total were available. In addition to the uni, there was hamachi with blood orange and fennel, a yellowfin tuna with grated apple, and sea scallops with grapefruit oil.

From the pasta section of the menu, we tried the the tortelloni,

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pasta filled with bits of roast pork and prosciutto. The peas provided a well-rounded sweet flavor that was a good complement to the tinge of saltiness provided by the pork in the tortelloni. The pasta here was not quite of the delicate fine quality exhibited by the tagliatelle (with pork sugo) that we ordered on our first meal here, but it was definitely decent. To top it off, the dish was served with a teasing broth that is a mixture of beef, lamb, and pork stocks. This pasta dish was not a revelation, but it was still rather successful, on the whole.

By far, the winner of the night was the milk-braised Berkshire pork shoulder:

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One note here: Short Exact split this entree with our dining companion, so the portion size you see in the above photo is smaller than a full entree portion.

The pork shoulder rested on a bed of fresh, crispy Savoy cabbage, and it was served with a side of Anson Mills polenta that was creamy, with a very delicate sweetness. The main star of the show, though, was the pork shoulder, which was rich and deeply flavorful. It was certainly tender, but not consistently so. While some sections of the shoulder were merely somewhat soft, other sections were so exceedingly tender that the meat literally melted underneath the slightest pressure from our fork. Nonetheless, it was a very good dish, and we would order it again. Judging from this pork shoulder, the pasta with pork sugo we ordered on our last visit, and the house-cured salumi misti (also from our last visit), it is clear that despite the availability of vegetarian dishes on the menu, Perbacco excels in its preparations of meat dishes, particularly pork.

Although we reported on our first lunch at Perbacco on January 29, 2007, the actual lunch took place a month earlier, at the very end of December 2006. We’re going to be completely honest and transparent here regarding our first review of Perbacco. The entirety of 2006 was an extremely difficult, taxing, emotional roller coaster sort of year for us, and the lunch at Perbacco was literally and symbolically a celebratory way of looking forward to what would hopefully be a much better year in 2007. Given this, it is entirely possible that our initial exceptionally high rating of this restaurant was colored by our enthusiasm and hope at being able to put the hard times behind us. The recent dinner we had at Perbacco was not quite as stellar of an experience, and this is likely due to a combination of an actually inferior experience and the fact that we were a bit more discriminating this time than we were at the lunch in December. The service the second time around was at least as helpful and enthusiastic as it was the first time, but the food did not perform at the level that a rating of 4.5 stars implies.

In any event, despite the mishap with the beet salad, our recent dinner at Perbacco probably floats in the 3-to-3.5 star range, with the quality service putting it at a more solid 3.5. Averaged with the 4.5 stars from our last review, we’ll update Perbacco’s rating to 4 stars. Even though the dinner was not as nice as the lunch, our overall impression is still a favorable one, and we would like to return to explore more of the menu.

RATING:

COST:

Please scroll to the bottom of our original review for the restaurant hours and contact information.