The Asian Collection

On exhibit: Vietnamese, Cambodian, Korean, and Chinese restaurants

Not that I need an excuse to eat in four different Asian restaurants in a week, especially in San Francisco, but anticipating the opening of the Asian Art Museum provided the inspiration. The city's proximity to what was then known as the Orient was one of its prime attractions for my Asian-art-loving father, and going to see the de Young's Brundage collection in its various incarnations over the years was a leitmotif of my childhood. Something my father said to me quite casually as we stood admiring, I think, a jade Buddha, colored my whole perception of the mysterious world of art and collecting: "Brundage has several people who travel the world full time, just looking for things to acquire for him." That job sounded like the fun part to me; I felt sorry for Mr. Brundage, stuck in some stuffy office, wielding the checkbook while his minions got to frequent galleries, auctions, and exotic shops.

I must admit that I'm one of the people who loved the proximity of the de Young to the kitschy but perfect Japanese Tea Garden: What better combination than to follow a perusal of Edo-period armor, carved ivory netsuke, and watercolor scrolls with a feast of weak jasmine tea and stale almond cookies while overlooking a man-made landscape mimicking the subject of the watercolors?

But man does not live by weak tea and stale cookies alone, and time marches on. The Brundage collection, augmented by gifts and acquisitions by many hands, now numbers more than 15,000 items; it long ago outgrew its modest de Young wing and reopened last week in the refurbished former Main Library. I was sufficiently a fan of Gae Aulenti's conversion of the 1900 Gare d'Orsay into the Musée d'Orsay to be excited by what she'd do with a 1917 beaux-arts building.

Dim Sum Yum: Ton Kiang's carts may stop rolling in 
the late afternoon, but the good food keeps coming all 
day long.
Anthony Pidgeon
Dim Sum Yum: Ton Kiang's carts may stop rolling in the late afternoon, but the good food keeps coming all day long.

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Cordon Bleu
#5 combo $7.40

Angkor Borei
Fresh spinach leaves with fillings $6.95
Cold Cambodian noodles $5.95

Hahn's Hibachi #2
Rib combination plate $7.50

Ton Kiang
Dim sum, 12 plates $39
Rice wine sauce chicken $8.50

Cordon Bleu, 1574 California (at Polk), 673-5637. Open for lunch Tuesday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and for dinner Tuesday through Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday from 4 to 10 p.m. Closed Monday. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 1, 19. Noise level: low.

Angkor Borei, 3471 Mission (at Cortland), 550-8417. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: easy. Muni: 14, 24, 49. Noise level: low.

Hahn's Hibachi #2, 1701 Polk (at Clay), 776-1095. Open Monday though Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday from noon to 9:30 p.m. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 1, 19. Noise level: low.

Ton Kiang, 5821 Geary (at 22nd Avenue), 387-8273. Open Monday through Thursday from 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations accepted for parties of six or more. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 2, 38. Noise level: moderate.

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In the meantime, I ate. With apologies to critic David Thomson (who asked these same questions about film): Is food an art form? Or something far more complicated? The tiny Cordon Bleu restaurant, as it styles itself -- though the eight- seat Formica counter fronting an open grill, with three tiny tables tucked in the back, reads more like a classic, Edward Hopper- ish diner -- seems an unlikely place to churn out masterpieces on a daily basis. But the (slightly hedged) boast printed on its otherwise modest menu ("Possibly the best chicken you will ever have outside of Vietnam") turns out to be a simple statement of fact. There are only five items on offer at the Cordon Bleu: imperial rolls, aka spring rolls; shish kebab, which here does not involve any kind of a skewer but is razor-thin slices of rib eye steak soaked in a sugary marinade and crisped on the grill; country salad, which is largely chopped cabbage; meat sauce on rice; and the previously mentioned chicken, rubbed with Asian five-spice powder (star anise, fennel, cinnamon, cloves, and Sichuan peppercorns), roasted, and reheated on the grill. You can order any of these a la carte ("Tea is not included with a la carte," the menu warns, but it didn't arrive with my combination plate, either) or in a variety of combinations. A quick perusal of the five plates reveals that if you pick #5, you can feast on all five of the Cordon Bleu's specialties for the princely sum of $7.40 -- also the top ticket on the menu. And it's more than you can eat, despite the fact that each item on the plate is (possibly) the best example of its genre that you've ever eaten. The crisp imperial roll is porky with a vegetable crunch, the thin steak irresistible, the meat sauce ever so slightly funky on the fluffy rice, and the chicken, oh my God, soft and moist and perfumed.

But a couple of days later I was hungry again, so Janice and I drove up to Bernal Heights in search of Cambodian food, on the recommendation of my friend Cathy, who'd sussed out every inexpensive restaurant in the city when she was an impecunious grad student. "I can't tell you how many times I had lunch at Angkor Borei," she said, and when we saw that the eatery's special $6.50 lunch included not one but two choices from a photo layout of nine enticing dishes (as well as a bowl of House Special Soup, which turned out, with its lemongrass-scented coconut milk broth filled with tiny mushrooms, chicken, and vegetables, to be very special indeed), we knew why. We adored our starter, chosen from the regular menu: a stack of small leaves of fresh spinach surrounded by tiny bowls full of chopped ginger, peanuts, diced fresh lime, red onion, chili, dried shrimp, toasted coconut, and a thick, dark, sweet sauce. We rolled our own, like tiny bite-size tacos, varying the proportions just for fun. We enjoyed the spicy chili squid and the similarly sauced chili pork, but the hit of the special lunch was the mild red chicken curry, full of snappy green beans and carrots. Another bowlful of the curry came with the cold Cambodian noodles, ready to be mixed with them and their accompanying stacks of bean sprouts, cucumber slices, chopped cabbage, shredded carrots, and leaves of sweet basil. For dessert we had crunchy, perfectly fried bananas with velvety coconut ice cream.

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