By Molly Gore
By Molly Gore
By Pete Kane
By Lou Bustamante
By Pete Kane
By Ashley Goldsmith
By Pete Kane
By John Birdsall
I'd chosen my guests carefully, knowing they had a great appetite for both retro kitsch and cocktails. It was a quieter weeknight, and we got a table in an alcove off the main room, where we had a good view of the beautiful, huge wood-fired oven, given dramatic pride of place in a special glassed-in enclosure next to the open kitchen. We studied the menus, which listed all the worldwide Trader Vic's. Why, we wondered, are there four Trader Vic's in the United Arab Emirates, including two in the dubious Dubai, an entire city constructed as a tourist trap from the ground up? From the cocktail menu, we ordered a Zombie for Hiya, another Suffering Bastard for Jonathan (who prides himself on his own version of the drink, made with blue curaçao), and I went for the Menehune Juice, fatalistically, only because it comes with a toy Menehune (a Hawaiian forest sprite) stirrer, and I figured I might as well get a souvenir for my $9. Once again the drinks tasted eerily alike, as though there were a spigot on the bar connected to a huge tank of tropical mixer.
Hiya wanted crab cakes, and I was agreeable, because my memory of the ones I had had last time was dim. This time they were, indeed, forgettable (Hiya liked them more than I did, but I swiftly reminded her of the better versions we've shared, as recently as last month). I was perplexed that Jonathan had ordered the Trader Vic's salad when there were items on the menu called Beef Cho-Cho (complete with a flaming hibachi) and Cheese Bings, but he said he was intrigued by its Javanese dressing. It turned out to be a big, crunchy salad with hearts of palm, but the dressing tasted like a regular old vinaigrette to me. When we inquired what made it Javanese, we were told it had Asian ingredients, like shoyu sauce and hoisin. Well, I said, soy sauce is Japanese, hoisin is Chinese, so why call it Javanese? (When I called about this later, a staffer explained kindly, even charmingly, that it was a traditional Trader Vic name for a traditional Trader Vic recipe.) Unlike Jonathan, I had gone the choose-by-the-name route, and was pleasantly surprised by my Bongo Bongo soup, a smooth purée of spinach with a slight briny oyster tang, prettily glazed with a float of cream browned under a broiler or salamander. It was the best thing I had tasted here.
Our main courses came from three different menu headings: seared saku tuna from a list, headed "Entrees," of around a dozen fusion dishes (such as veal medallions with morel sauce, pake noodles -- whatever they are -- and asparagus); maple leaf duck breast "from the wood-fired oven," a collection of another 10 dishes; and lamb from the four choices under "Trader Vic's Calcutta Curries." (We skipped the Chinese dishes "from our woks," although I was, once again fatalistically, tempted by chicken chow mein at $18.)
Emeryville, CA 94608
Open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday from 4 to 10 p.m.
Parking: valet $9, otherwise difficult
Muni: 5, 47, 49
Noise level: moderate to high
The duck and the tuna, though not particularly exciting or boldly seasoned, were much better than I'd expected: The ingredients were good, the portions generous. The tuna tasted a little dull under its coating of (prominent) sesame seeds and (reticent) pink peppercorns, but it was fresh and sweet. I'd anticipated a much smokier duck ("the heating source, natural smoke and heat, is derived from split oak or seasoned wood ... the delicacies are slowly cooked, producing a unique and original flavor"), but it was ducky enough, although once again its Malagasy green peppercorn sauce was timid. The only loser on the table was my curry, which came with a tricky little compartmentalized side dish filled with sunflower seeds, raisins, chopped cucumber, chopped banana, shredded coconut, chutney, a nice mustardy chowchow, and one wan wedge of tomato, fun items to play with that failed to enliven the characterless small chunks of lamb drowned in a dark curry sauce whose clearest spicy note was that of heat.
We finished with a dessert sampler, not on the menu but offered by our server after Hiya asked what the gentlemen at a neighboring table were having. It turned out they were arranging a banquet, so our plate was different from theirs (and also different from what our server had told us we'd receive), but we were happy enough with our assortment -- a coffee crème brûlée, a couple of banana fritters with vanilla ice cream and rum sauce, and two chocolate items, a cake and a mousse -- especially since we washed them down with two dessert drinks, a tiny White Cloud (coconut, crème de cacao, and vodka) and a Black Stripe (honeyed spiced rum surprisingly served in a white china skull, with disappointing maraschino cherries hiding in its depths).
When I got home, I consulted the one Trader Vic's item on my bookshelves (he authored at least 10 titles, including a children's tale -- about the Menehunes -- and a Mexican cookbook), the Trader Vic's Bartender's Guide, Revised from 1972, and found that many of his 143 tropical drinks (including the Suffering Bastard and the Menehune Juice) feature the same thing in their recipes: Trader Vic's Mai Tai mix. Hmmm. When I read that Queen Elizabeth II visited the San Francisco Trader Vic's in 1983, and that it was the only public restaurant the queen ever visited, I felt, for the first time, a sudden wave of pity for her.