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Wo Hing General Store: Charles Phan Tries Cantonese Food 

Wednesday, Jan 4 2012
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Déjà vu arrived along with Wo Hing General Store's poached yellow-feather chicken and ginger-scallion relish ($18). A breed with slimmer breasts, fuller flavor, and saffron-colored skin, the chicken was hacked into pieces and poached just until the red at the center of the bone began to fade and the meat had cooked to a marshmallow-like tenderness — and then served room temperature. But the dish didn’t echo memories of ABC’s Hoi Nam chicken or a hundred other poached chickens I’d eaten in Cantonese restaurants. Instead, I flashed back to my first order of caramel-sauce catfish at Slanted Door, where an architect named Charles Phan was introducing diners who wouldn’t dare park their Beamers on Larkin Street to the sparkle and herbaceousness of southern Vietnamese cuisine, cooked with the most sustainable meat and local produce he could find.

Phan's newest restaurant — located on the site of his first — reflects everything he's learned since 1995, only now the Chinese-Vietnamese restaurateur is working with Cantonese home cooking. With the chicken came a glass of Natural Process Alliance's sherry-like "orange" pinot gris-sauvignon blanc blend off Chaylee Priete's list of natural wines, as well as a catfish steamed with a ginger-inflected black-bean sauce ($20) that had the same muted, elegant kick as the gin in one of Brooke Arthur's dry sherry cocktails I'd drunk before the waiters ferried out the dumplings and stir-fried long beans that began the meal.

The cuisine may be different, but Phan's vision is familiar, refined over the course of 16 years and a half-dozen restaurants: smart cocktails, fascinating wine and tea lists, and an aesthetic with the cool polish of a Brancusi sculpture. Slanted Door's celadon walls are now a rich gray, and half of the tables on the main level have been replaced with a black, stool-free bar. The quirky, curvy lines favored by 1990s designers were straightened out and ornamented with reclaimed pieces: The wood tables come from a bowling alley, and if the diagonal stripes on the glass partitions on the mezzanine look familiar, that's because you used to stare at them on bus shelters.

For all Phan's success, Wo Hing is a risky venture, and based on my three visits, one that doesn't always succeed. It's one thing to introduce high-end Vietnamese food to a city with a tiny Vietnamese American community. It's another to serve a dish like scrambled eggs ($11) — a great cumulous cloud of them, the color of turmeric and studded with fried pork belly and scallions — to diners who grew up eating the dish on a lazy Tuesday night.

Then again, why not? Seeing as how one-fifth of San Franciscans are Chinese American, and Cantonese food has been at the heart of the city's culinary culture for 150 years, it strikes me as odd that no local restaurateurs have done what Phan is attempting with Wo Hing. You can order countless $388 banquets — overstuffed with abalone and lobster, rife with shark's fin and sea cucumber — but no one else is upscaling grandma staples like steamed pork patty with salted fish ($13) for the same audience that searches out Fatted Calf's meatloaf and Locanda's rigatoni alla carbonara.

Our intimate familiarity with those dishes is what can make Wo Hing's mastery so appealing. Order the stir-fried wheat noodles with pork ($14), and it's not the newness of the flavors that draws you in, it's the texture of the flat, sinuous wheat noodles, which have a surprising bite, as if Michael Tusk sent over a couple of pounds of his best fettuccine for Phan's cooks to stir-fry. And there is an unfamiliar note of star anise to the chopped pork filling of Wo Hing's Shanghai soup dumplings ($13), but it's the supple skins and precise, pinched whorls at the top that you really notice. Some of the vegetable sides ($8) — the long beans, the gai lan — are left too raw, as if they belong on salads, but then comes a simple dish like the baby bok choy, thumbnail-sized clusters of leaves sauteed with a deep mushroom stock and even a little smoky wok breath.

The simplicity and familiarity of the dishes mean the chefs are dancing on a tightrope of expectations, and on my first two visits they fell almost as often as they pirouetted. Gummy ha gau ($8), diffidently seasoned ma po tofu ($13), half-hearted fried squid, and grainy, pallid Westlake beef jook ($16) didn't do Phan's mission any favors. (Even a less gritty rice porridge with gorgeous flavors — slow-roasted pork and a brawny chicken stock — raised the question: Why are there so many jooks on Wo Hing's menu? They don't fit in.) The desserts, from a sticky-gritty black sesame mochi to an ube tart that barely improved on mashed potatoes, were uniformly awful. And I still prefer the $5.50 steamed pork patty from Top's Cafe in Portola to Wo Hing's $13 version, even with its hand-chopped, sustainably raised pork and house-salted fish. You're only allowed to scale up grandma cooking if the results turn out significantly better.

Still, the kitchen grew more assured with every visit, and the subtle creativity behind the dishes began to show through. It may have been the yuba salad ($10) that cemented my respect for what Phan is doing here, the strips of spongy tofu skin tossed with tiny mushrooms and pickled shallots, or his lamb skewers with silk route spices ($13), succulent strips of lamb dusted with a quarter of the spice Beijing's street stalls use but grilled far more surely. By the third visit, Phan's rewriting of San Francisco's second great cuisine in the language of Californian bistros won me over. I think it was probably Wo Hing's Sichuan red-braised lamb ($22) that did it, slices of meat bathed in a sauce alive with black peppercorn, anise, and Sichuan peppercorns, accompanied with cubes of daikon that had become velvety in the braise. Grandma may have created the original dish, but the chef's hand was apparent, too.

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Jonathan Kauffman

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