When I was a kid I liked the show biz of Ripley's Believe It or Not! and the Wax Museum and the Human Jukebox, and strolling today in the general vicinity of Taylor and Jefferson can certainly furnish one with some bizarre Chamber of Commerce-approved mental snapshots. But by and large, one's general instinct is to rendezvous anywhere to the south of this T-shirt-infested place.
A new breed of Wharf theatrics raised its curtain in early February. Ana Mandara, an elegant Vietnamese restaurant inhabiting the brickwork of Ghirardelli Square, is anything but ticky-tacky: Native artworks, intricate detail work, thick foliage, and acres of polished marble dominate a towering space at once dazzling and intimate, and the menu and presentations reflect a unique culinary aesthetic. But it is also as atmospherically entertaining, in its sumptuous and well-heeled way, as a foray to Disneyland or the quieter reaches of the Vegas strip.
This should come as no surprise, since two of the restaurant's co-owners are Don Johnson and Cheech Marin, and the rumor is that the venue will make repeated guest shots on their TV series, Nash Bridges. (There's even theatrical lighting way up in the rafters, adding to the overall movie-set atmosphere.) Towering archways lead to curved staircases and softly lit chambers edged in bamboo, the whole gleaming with indigenously crafted bells, gongs, and voluptuous icons, palm fronds, heavy wooden shutters, deeply cushioned wicker, burbling fountains, and an attentive waitstaff attired in dazzling brocades and Running Dog Khaki, soon to appear in your neighborhood Gap.
Associations abound: Over the course of two meals I was reminded, in turn, of Caesar's Palace, the Jungle Cruise in Adventureland, and this one time I sneaked onto the Paramount back lot in Hollywood, as well as such local forays into ambient culinaria as Le Colonial and Shanghai 1930. Like those downtown examples of Asian-fusion elegance, Ana Mandara recalls the days of Far Eastern Euro-colonialism; its setting is meant to evoke a Vietnamese plantation house of the French colonial era, and based on my experience of that milieu (the movies) it does, it does.
But the food is better here than at the other two: It's crisper, livelier, more inventive, with a striking sense of balance and cultural transgression. Executive Chef Khai Duong was born in the coastal Vietnamese village of Nha-Trang, graduated first in his class at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and most recently worked at the Beverly Hills Le Colonial as well as New York's trendy La Bernardin; this confluence of French training, American experience, and seacoast Vietnamese birthright results in many a delectable dish.
First, though, a visit to the upper-level bar (accessible via Ghirardelli brick walkway) is in order. The Ana Mandara cocktail ($6) -- lemongrass-infused vodka shaken with ice, fresh mint, and lemongrass and served with a spear of lemongrass wrapped in an orange-peel twist -- is like Southeast Asia in a martini glass, and is absolutely refreshing. Another specialty is the Silver Needles ($6), in which Brazilian Cachaça rum and blue curaçao are shaken with ice, strained into an ouzo-rinsed glass, and floated with star anise, resulting in a sweet, tasty, cobalt-blue concoction. Enjoy them at the bar's lovely bayside window or in one of the comfy armchairs (there's a grand piano in the corner for live weekend jazz), and when you're finished, the bartender will buzz the hostess to escort you to your table downstairs.
Starting things off are seared oysters served en casserole with water spinach ($7); the suppleness of the oysters comes through despite nice spiky accents from their peppercorn-based braising sauce and the earthiness of the greens, making this a prime example of the chef's dedication to lively, disparate flavors. The striped-bass seviche ($10), similarly, is marked by both the creaminess of the fish and the brightness of its cucumber-shallot-chili oil accompaniment. The Dungeness baked in green bamboo ($9) is like a good, moist crab cake, spicy and dense, presented, like all the other dishes, with a sense of geometry and culinary feng shui -- the three lobster ravioli ($8), for instance, are served in a triangular dish to emphasize their visual simplicity and rich cilantro-ginger complexity.
Among the entrees, the Happy Pancake ($15) is a Saigon version of an empanada or a pastry, as a light, chewy pancake crust encloses an earthy-briny blend of scallops, prawns, mushrooms, and Southeast Asian spice. Outdoing it in glitz, the lobster tower ($22) is served in a vertically aspiring lobster shell, antennae aquiver; remove the carapace and you've got big, healthy chunks of sweetly unadulterated lobster meat with thin slices of perfect avocado on a bed of chewy, sticky, spice-fragrant rice; it's like a high-end California roll, down to the invigorating dots of wasabi sauce decorating the platter.
Direct from the Mekong Delta, it's seared basa ($15), a wonderfully tender breed of Vietnamese whitefish that outdoes any sole or sand dab in subtlety and texture, served here with a slightly sweet lemon sauce to showcase its singular flavor. But the American pleasures of a slow-braised veal shank ($14) are somewhat diminished by a scarcity of advertised root vegetables and a middling basil-based brown sauce. On the side we had the fairly bland Ana Mandara rice ($5) ribboned with shrimp, chicken, and Vietnamese sausage (but amusingly served, cornucopia-style, in a banana-leaf cone) and stir-fried snow pea sprouts ($3), fresh and bright as a meadow of watercress, with subtle garlicky accents.
The desserts are somewhat disappointing. An overly soft and sweet poached pear ($5) is filled with gloppy vanilla rice pudding and doused in caramel. The lime sorbet ($5) has a nice basil aftertaste, but it's too overwhelmingly brisk. However, the mango sorbet ($5) is wonderfully fresh and creamy, and its accompaniment of fresh grapefruit, orange, and mango is highlighted by dates aromatically infused with tea to create an unusual and intriguing dish. And the vanilla-bean custard ($6) is like a rich crème brûlée without the brûlée, with the added attraction of lavender-infused chocolate cream on top. To accompany them, green tea ($2.50) ("from our family's plantation in Vietnam") is served in a beautifully engraved and enameled pot with tiny matching teacups.
The two Vietnamese beers, Hue ($3.25) and 33 ($3), are tropical-bland and perhaps best avoided, but sommelier Larry Stone's wine list is voluminous and encompassing and designed to complement the most hard-to-pigeonhole flavors, with aromatic whites from Alsace and Austria and varietals from Tuscany and Australia, as well as boutique pinots, beaujolais, and cabs, most of them in the $20 to $50 range, although the 1997 Chateau Margaux ($130) and 1996 Montrachet ($180) are looking pretty good. There are also 11 wines by the glass ($4-11).
After dinner I went home, turned on the TV, and the first two channels I surfed were showing Indochine and China Beach. The show biz, she is everywhere.