*THIS RESTAURANT HAS CLOSED*
San Francisco continues to generate restaurants featuring higher-end interpretations of otherwise inexpensive ethnic cuisines—Mamacita is a far cry from the Tamale Lady, Shanghai 1930 and Shanghai Restaurant are two very different animals, Prana is opening soon and DOSA is, well, we don't have any other South Indian joints in the city yet, so DOSA stands alone. When Slanted Door first opened many moons ago on Valencia Street, I don't think many folks would have believed it would morph into the iconic San Franciscan culinary destination/ever-growing empire it is now.
People (well, most) stopped complaining about the price difference between Slanted Door's spring rolls versus how much you would pay at your neighborhood Vietnamese joint (for the record, it's about a two-to-one ratio) because they eventually came to realize it's a completely different experience—and you don't get to order from a list of ten different Rieslings at your neighborhood haunt, either.
The latest higher-end Vietnamese restaurant in town, ~BONG SU~, has been generating some comparisons to Slanted Door, and while they both have some European whites on their wine list, I think they are very different restaurants. Some dishes at Bong Su strike me as more exotic or even decadent than what you would find on Slanted Door's menu, but they do share a number of classics, like shaking beef, clay pot dishes, and papaya salad. Bong Su has more of a loungey vibe, while Slanted Door is what I like to call "natural modern," with Heath ceramics and wood tables. There are other differences as well, like the regions of Vietnam they each represent on their menus (Bong Su denotes North, Central, or South for each dish). Slanted Door has an apparent focus on using organic and sustainable producers, which really comes across in how "clean" the food always tastes to me. And yes, Bong Su's wispy hostess ensembles have everyone talking. In the end, it's like comparing Tres Agaves to Mamacita—they are both serving upscale Mexican food and margaritas, but why compare them? They have different perspectives and offer different experiences. Did anyone compare Pearl Jam and Nirvana, even though they were both grunge? Anyway.
Bong Su is the second restaurant for Anne Le and Tammy Huynh (who is also the Executive Chef); they both own the popular Tamarine in Palo Alto. Along with Engstrom Design Group, they definitely have an eye for style and details, which you'll notice at every turn. The space underwent a massive facelift after its previous incarnation as a Max's Diner—Cher would approve. She would also approve of the extra-slinky backless ensembles the hostesses wear, and most guys will give the thumbs-up as well. Let's just say no one with any love handles will ever be hired as a hostess at Bong Su. (The men's bathrooms also conveniently have a primer on pick-up lines in Vietnamese playing in the background—give it your best shot, guys.)
The lounge is moody, with high tables for walk-ins, and a bar that has a lit-up lower section that feels somewhat Blade Runner, while the main bar is tiled in dark chocolate tiles—almost like a massive Hershey bar. The main dining room is a narrow shotgun space with banquette seating flanking the wall, and a long communal table with glowing lights of grass cloth and sheer fabric hanging from above. Since it's not one big square room, the volume never reaches a horrible din. There are also some large sandstone deities, draped panels of gauzy fabric hanging from the low ceiling of café au lait tiles, and pearlescent chairs. Overall, the room has a subdued and minimalist visual tone.
The menu arrives in a luxe burgundy and gold holder, hinting at some of the indulgences to come. Overall, the apps are well designed for sharing (unlike some other places in town that claim to be shared plates but really don't get it). Bundles of shredded five-spice duck ($9) are charmingly wrapped in mustard leaves with mango and cucumber tucked inside, accompanied by a hoisin/plum/sriracha dipping sauce—the flavors were familiar, but the presentation was delicate and refreshing. Our server steered us toward the goi kampachi ($13), sashimi-style slices of Kona Kampachi (sidebar: did you know this fish is trademarked?) topped with jalapeño, frizzled shallot, and a drizzle of a chili-lime-yuzu fish sauce—it was a fine presentation, but didn't quite get me fired up, despite the presence of chili and jalapeño.
Personally, the dish that totally mind-erased me and made me its love slave (I felt like Katie Holmes) was the shrimp cupcakes ($9)—little rice flour crisps filled with a heavenly concoction of coconut milk, scallion oil, prawns, and then topped with ground prawn flour the color of bright egg yolks. You pour a small amount of the blended fish sauce (fish sauce, vinegar, chili, sugar) into the cupcake and then take a bite—it's a total mess to eat in two bites, but a monster to pop into your mouth all at once. (Some of you futomaki munchers out there shouldn't have a problem.) Just pick it up, and have at it, however you can manage. The textures were so satisfying, from the crispy exterior to the custardy interior, and the bright flavors delivered a full flavor spectrum—loved the full shrimpy factor. Woo hoo, the portion brings six cupcakes. You will fully commit. You just might get pregnant.
I had to check out their execution of bun cha noodles ($14)—what arrives is a dark glossy ceramic bowl of grilled pork shoulder with excellent grilled flavor, and a tangle of vermicelli noodles that weren't pre-cut into the traditional little piles that make the subsequent placement into the tender lettuce leaves easier to manage. I guess this is where tradition gets off, and the "new interpretation" part kicks in. Interestingly, the fish sauce actually rests under the pork in case you were looking for your dipping sauce—you won't end up dipping your roll into a separate bowl. The accompanying purple perilla mint (similar to Japanese shiso) had a fab freshness, which I haven't had in many neighborhood Vietnamese joints around town, that's for sure.
The entrées ramp up in price, and in the dishes we tried, the portions weren't exactly built for sharing between more than two people. Most of the entrées hover around $24, which makes me wish I knew the provenance of the ingredients—very few of the meats are name-checked, which makes me wonder whether the chicken is organic or not. Exotic ingredients, like sautéed chive flowers, lily buds, and string yams make special appearances on the menu.
The caramelized black cod ($19) was silky and sweet, with flavors of garlic and molasses all coming together into potent and peppery bites of the tender fish. But the portion was barely enough for two to share—if there was one more person at the table, there would have been a fight; I'm talking Jets and Sharks.
The shaking beef ($23) had some of the most tender cubes of beef tenderloin I've had in some time, marinated in soy sauce, garlic, sugar, black pepper, and soybean oil. They were exquisite and juicy, and it was enough to forgive their lukewarm "I've been resting" temp, but sadly, the hunks of sharp onion were so horsey they overwhelmed the dish if you took a bite of both. I'm curious to see if this dish will evolve a little.
One feature vegetarians will like is the menu highlights numerous dishes that can be morphed into vegetarian options—even the shrimp cakes! It becomes an extremely vegetarian-friendly menu—there are 18 different potential vegetarian dishes total. Interestingly, there are also six different rice options, from a coconut and vanilla option ($2) to the empress rice ($7), three mounds of garlic, ginger, and leek-seasoned rice with a runny quail egg perched on top of each.
Before sliding into dessert, we were served a palate-cleanser of hot lotus root tea and a candied lotus seed that you pop into your mouth before you drink the tea. Thoughtful detail. Desserts from Clara Yun include a number of refreshing ingredients, like the coconut tapioca ($8) with roasted pineapple, mango sorbet, and basil syrup (not just for pesto anymore). But I am sure the hit will be the black sesame banana beignets ($10), piping hot fritters with two dipping sauces of Valhrona chocolate and crème anglaise, plus a side of uncommon black sesame ice cream that I really liked. Kind of a dusky flavor. A kid would probably dump both the sauces over the beignets, and the ice cream too, and then tuck into beignet island. Don't think it didn't cross my mind.
The bill arrives in a lacquer box, with plumeria flowers for any ladies at the table. Why plumeria? Because that's what bong su means, darlings. (You thought it was because we were in pot-friendly San Francisco, but no.) Will that bill be a little more than you were expecting? Maybe, if you're comparing it to an ethnic night out somewhere—but if you think of it as a night out at any other hip restaurant in the City, it should feel familiar.
NOTE: SoMa workers should know that Bong Su is open for lunch, and has a killer lunch special: for $17, there's the "Power Lunch," a two-course meal that is designed to get you out of there in under an hour, and includes the shrimp cupcakes, huzzah. There's also a happy hour from 4pm-6:30pm, with half-off starters in the lounge. Again, think of those shrimp cupcakes. The cocktails are pretty delish (and boozy)—check out the Earl Grey Boxcar or the Cool-Cumber. Oh, and did I mention the shrimp cupcakes?
311 3rd St.
Cross: Folsom St.
San Francisco, CA 94107
Dinner nightly 5:30pm-10pm
Lunch Mon-Fri 11:30am-2:30pm