Khai’s Tasting Menu Goes Nine for Nine

In a city of splashy tasting menus, here comes a chef-driven Vietnamese restaurant that whispers rather than shouts.

Dungeness crab sausage (Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane)

“It’s good for your skin and lungs,” is not something you hear a lot when a seaweed salad is put in front of you. Nor is the person placing the plate likely to be the executive chef. But that’s how it goes at Khai, a new and down-to-earth Vietnamese restaurant from chef Khai Duong on Townsend Street in SoMa.

You will likely hear about how the recipe came from his hometown and how the cauliflower-white seaweed is not blanched, but rather comes from so deep in the sea that the sun’s rays can’t penetrate the water column. It’s a very light, mild salad tossed with jicama, with notes of tomato water. It’s vinegary, but only a little. The seaweed has a slightly rubbery crunch, yielding to the tooth in a way that calls to mind a comically wobbly children’s toy. Paired with a Sauvignon Blanc that dashes it with a bit of acid, it’s almost more of a temptation than a proper course, leaving you wanting more.

Tasting menus seem to get simultaneously loftier and more common, an excuse to separate you from your hard-earned money. But at Khai, a tasting menu of nine courses plus wine pairings is only $145 all told, and the level of craft that greets you is even throughout. Whatever the opposite of resting on your laurels is, that’s what this place embodies. (And it’s more “tasting” than “menu,” since there’s nothing to tell you what you’re about to eat.)

Did I mention that Duong works the floor, and with only one other server? On a trip to the restroom, I tried to peer behind the curtain that separates the kitchen from the dining room to see how many staff were back there, but I felt too self-conscious.

He’s doing it somehow, though. It’s all the more remarkable considering that Duong essentially borrows the space, which houses Bonjour Patisserie by day. Consequently, it’s not the most fitting environs for a meal of this caliber. You can’t ding the uninspired decor too hard, since it’s not Duong’s to redesign, but they ought to switch up the music, which is that kind of fluttery piano stuff that’s meant to be heard but not listened to (and once listened to, cannot be unheard).

Duong ran the well-regarded Ana Mandara until about five years ago, when rent pressures caused him to return to his native Vietnam. With Khai, he’s back with two seatings each night, and either his prior experience scorched him or else he’s just a methodical workhorse by nature. Don’t be in a hurry when eating here, as it’s possible chef does most of it himself (possibly while in between typing out responses to positive Yelp reviews).

After the seaweed salad came a mound of coral with chunks of rice cracker embedded between its ossified tentacles, and a dish of honey and mushroom paté. It would be a stunner if the crackers and coral weren’t dueling shades of beige, but it was a solid combination of sturdy base and decadent topping.

The Dungeness crab-and-matsutake-mushroom sausage that followed it was visually much more compelling — bawdy, even. With the texture of a crab cake and just a hint of heat, the nub of meat was centered on a thin slice of watermelon sausage with dots of kaffir lime dressing all around it (and on a cloud-shaped plate at that). Although I can envision the binders being tricky to nail down, crab sausage is, without question, something that more kitchens should do. But I wasn’t wild about the non-specific white wine that came with it, which was perfumey and structureless, like what you get at Holy Communion.

A subtle Pinot Noir accompanied a tomato soup that was served in a vessel kept warm by a candle underneath it. A plate of veggies and fish over vermicelli came with an intriguing hot banana sauce that went great with the bundle of apple slivers. That was definitely not the kind of dish that reminded me of my upbringing, but it’s easy to imagine it striking exactly that chord for people who grew up eating Vietnamese cooking.

Like a drier chicharron, the shrimp chip underneath the beef tartare quietly crackled from the fat and the kumquat and the lemongrass sourced from Saigon. It was salty and tangy, all you could want, and never overpowering. Duong said the the next plate — black cod in a fish sauce with green onions and peanuts over noodles — was a re-creation of a dish that a restaurant in Hanoi has served every day for 145 years. (Assuming that’s true, it would make it only 11 years younger than The Old Clam House, but it seems plausible. And a with the seaweed salad, it’s not a flashy piece of fish in any way. There’s some turmeric and a bit of dill, but the tender flesh remains the center of gravity.

The first truly heavy course was a plate of garlicky fried quail carrying a nasturtium leaf on its back like a leaf-cutter ant. What made it heavy was yucca and mashed potatoes with truffle oil — although at this point, we’d been seated for just over two hours, so tackling it wasn’t a difficult task. The starches were rich and gooey, and the whole thing was gratifying. You could easily just chew on the quail bones.

To take the gaminess out of the final course, lamb, Duong said he rubs it with a blend of spices from the northern fringes of Vietnam near the Chinese border, then serves it over eggplant. However he does it, the textures it yielded were most satisfying, from the eggplant’s lightly charred skin to the smartly tenderized meat. And apart from a bit of rosemary stuck in the middle of it and the verdict of your own taste buds, there was no flourish, nothing to indicate that this was the pièce de résistance. It was merely delicious.

Dessert was a steamed coconut roll with durian, and I have to say I loved it. Guess I’m all groweds up now, too, because I don’t remember ever liking the taste of durian before. A bracing cup of hot lemongrass-and-ginger tea came straight after — containing more durian, we were told, although that ginger could put out a grease fire — and then everything was unceremoniously over. Khai’s near-total absence of theatrics might confuse people who expect showmanship or ego as part of the tasting-menu experience — but in my estimation, Duong went nine for nine, so hopefully Khai wins him the audience he deserves. I went to thank him after we’d paid, but he was standing in the corner by the host stand, checking his texts.

Khai, 655 Townsend St., 415-724-2325 or chefkhai.com

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