By Omar Mamoon
By Kate Williams
By Pete Kane
By Molly Gore
By Lou Bustamante
By Anna Roth
It's hard to know what to make of Bistro Lan. Two terrific, well-run restaurants have failed at 2299 Van Ness in the last couple of years: Bella Luna and Pair. Let's just say it would be ironic if Bistro Lan were the one to succeed.
The word for this restaurant is "unstreamlined." The cozy, clubby interior hints at formality, with lots of dark polished wood and pleasing carved details left over from previous incarnations. This, and the courtly European staff, and the lavish bar, establishes one set of expectations; then the list of tropical cocktails and the fun house mirrors in the bathrooms shake those expectations; the menu and the food confuse the issue further. The restaurant seems to be flailing in various directions, hoping one will be a success. There are rumored plans for the addition of a sushi bar, and no doubt also, if the mood strikes, a karaoke lounge, bicycle rentals, free dry cleaning while you eat, or even the Internet access tantalizingly alluded to by the restaurant's name.
The cuisine is billed as "Asian fusion," which is true, strictly speaking, but the attractive setting does not echo the Asian theme, and the food has none of the fashionable touches that fusion usually connotes. Ingredients are arrayed without unnecessary elements: If you order steak with mango and broccoli, there will be exactly those three things on the plate. The menu exhibits an odd set of influences, reminiscent of Hawaiian cookery -- there are the expected Shanghai/Cantonese and Japanese ideas, with occasional flavors from Vietnam and Korea, but also a surprising American vernacular.
The restaurant's overeagerness to please is extremely evident in the hovering waitstaff, who, in the first five minutes, seat you politely, pass around menus, and wait just within earshot, leaning closer once or twice to inquire if you have any "questions about the menu." Yes, there are indeed questions, but it can be difficult to formulate them at the time. What exactly is going on here? What is this menu all about? How do I proceed? There are three full pages of starters, and they don't seem to follow any pattern: cold soft tofu with 1,000-year-old egg is right next to fried fish sticks with tartar sauce; shrimp is available either Chinese salt-and-pepper style or wrapped in bacon and fried. It's too easy to order disharmonious dishes: The authenticity of the truly delicious traditional chilled wine-preserved sole is jarred by the presence of deep-fried crab with cream cheese and mayonnaise. The disparity in mood between the various dishes distances the diner: It's too difficult to really relish one type while the other's there, so the meal as a whole, no matter how ostensibly delicious, loses focus.
It would make sense for Bistro Lan to provide two menus, perhaps, or at least prune the one it's got. The restaurant has already deleted a number of blatantly Italian dishes: insalata caprese, spaghetti con vongole. If you try too hard to please everyone, you'll wind up pleasing no one.
Some of the food, taken in isolation, is indeed very good. The pure flavors of a bright-green spinach purée soup, available with or without scallops ($3.75, $5.95), could not be better -- the soup is hot and comforting and delicious. The wonton soup ($4.25) is fresher and tastier than what you get at the corner Chinese place, with chewier wontons, but otherwise not very different. And a soup of crab, asparagus, and corn ($5.95) is delicate and elegant, but has too faint a flavor, and a bit too much cornstarch -- it's too authentic, in other words, for a cosmopolitan restaurant like this.
It's best, perhaps, just to plunge in and get whatever appeals. The fried breaded tuna sticks ($5.25) are excellent, much juicier and meatier than the familiar flaky fish stick. The crispy batter and thick mayonnaise sauce are a delightful respite from today's overweening healthy and faux-healthy food trends. And the deep-frying continues, with fried salmon-and-cream-cheese rolls ($4.95), fried wontons of crab meat and cream cheese ($5.95), both served with mayonnaise; chopped shrimp deep-fried in tofu skins, served with Worcestershire sauce ($4.95); and a fried whole soft-shell crab, served with a honey wasabi sauce ($8.95). However, these, along with the bacon-wrapped shrimp ($6.95), could all reasonably be exported to a tapas or bar menu. They are all tasty, as deep-fried things tend to be, and some have surprising depth, but they don't have the refinement of the other starters.
The Shanghai-style cold tofu ($3.95) is extremely delicate and mild -- a tofu-lover's dish. Thin slices of fresh, smooth, frangible tofu are stacked, dressed with soy sauce, and topped with creamy, pungent chopped 1,000-year old egg and tart, salty preserved radish -- a beautiful little essay in flavor. Also excellent is a simple salad of cooked spinach with sesame oil and pine nuts ($4.25). The rich, faintly bitter oil smooths the fresh vegetable taste of the spinach. And Lan's take on imperial rolls ($4.25) is unsurprising but delicious.
The main dishes consist of variations on a few themes. Tuna ($14.95) or beef rib-eye ($15.95) steak can be had with "Oriental sauce": The meat is seared in a lightly sweet soy-garlic glaze. The beef is moist and the tuna meaty; both are satisfying. And the accompanying sautéed ribbons of potato with onion are quite possibly the tastiest thing at Bistro Lan. The beef can also be had with gravy or with mango sauce ($15.95), the latter oddly un-integrated with the meat.