Heaven's Dog, the latest offering from iconic San Francisco restaurateur Charlie Phan (The Slanted Door, Out the Door), is housed in a chic, cleanly designed modern space on the ground floor of the SOMA Grand, a new high-rise apartment building on a still-gritty stretch of Mission.
Phan's house designer, Olle Lundberg, has constructed several distinct and inviting spaces. The main entrance, placed behind a courtyard with a few metal tables and chairs, opens onto a foyer with bright-orange loveseats tucked in a narrow slot. There's a long, glamorous bar down one side of a narrow room; on the left, you can enter the brightly lit noodle shop with counter seating overlooking the open kitchen and the street. Farther down, there's the calmer main dining room, with orange banquettes and pale wood tables topped with Jonathan Adler pottery in sharp citrus colors. At the end of the bar is a semiscreened space that could serve as a private room. Hanging here and there are amusing contemporary dog paintings that all seem executed by the same hand.
The home page of the restaurant's Web site is topped with a picture of the impressive array of bottles behind the hefty slab of cypress that forms its bar. Below that, printed in lowercase, is "welcome to the dog. mix equal parts bar and restaurant." We found ourselves wishing we'd mixed equal parts bar and restaurant, because the sole $10 cocktail we tried from the dozen or so on the list was indeed divine. The Bumblebee, described as coming from "Georgetown, British Guianna," [sic] was a frothy, gin-fizz–like mixture of Appleton V/X rum, lime, honey, and egg white.
We were less entranced with the food we sampled over two visits: Each time, we preferred the appetizers to the large plates by quite a bit, and the noodle dishes were almost shockingly disappointing.
Phan, who pioneered the concept of making Vietnamese dishes with Chez Panisse–worthy organic ingredients, conceived this menu with Chinese chef Andy Wai. Rumors before Heaven's Dog's opening positioned the place as a sort of combination of New York's trendy Momofuku Noodle Bar and Momofuku Ssam Bar.
The sweetly glazed braised pork belly in a soft puffy clamshell bun, three to a plate ($9), with the crunch of slivered scallions, did remind us of the famous Ssam Bar bites, though here the meat is firmer, less luscious. Still, it's a good dish, and one we would order again, as we would the steamed Shanghai dumplings ($8), arrayed on a cabbage leaf so you won't tear their thin wrappers and let the hot soup surrounding the tender, pale pork forcemeat stuffing leak away. They were served with a bit of spicy soy-based sauce and welcome shreds of fresh ginger. We also enjoyed the spicy Niman Ranch lamb skewers ($9), bits of lamb dusted with cumin, sesame, and powdered chile peppers, and the beef curry puffs ($7), four crisp triangles of paper-thin dough filled with a subtle and very lightly curried mixture of ground beef and herbs, served with a rice-wine vinegar sauce in which a few shreds of mint floated.
There are indeed more appetizers on the dinner menu (more than a dozen) than mains (eight), plus two noodle dishes listed with five vegetable offerings, under the heading of sides. Niman Ranch flank steak, quickly stir-fried in the wok with lots of fresh asparagus and baby shiitake mushrooms ($15), boasted excellent ingredients but wasn't very interesting — it was just a straightforward, well-prepared Cantonese dish. The Florida shrimp and glass noodle claypot ($16) also seemed timid: Where was the seasoning? Neither the claypot nor a rice vermicelli stir fry ($10), with bits of Niman Ranch pork shoulder and fat shrimp in a yellow curry sauce, demanded to be finished. A side of spicy organic cauliflower ($9), the firm florets excitingly paired with tiny, delicate beech mushrooms, was more successful. This is clean, pure food — although maybe a little too clean and pure for my tastes. The ingredients are left to speak for themselves, but I'd like more layered, nuanced flavors and spicing. It's comfort food that's a little too comfortable.
At lunch, the Niman Ranch pork omelet ($11), not an omelet but eggs scrambled medium hard with ground pork and chopped Chinese chives, tasted like a dish stirred up at home, though there the omelet might reach the table still soft. Heaven's Dog's version of dan dan mein ($7), egg noodles served with shredded cucumber, peanuts, and almost invisible bits of pressed tofu, is topped with a chile-sesame sauce that quickly turned the dish gloppy. The most successful item at lunch, and the only large dish I ordered that I would return for, was the beautifully fried salt-and-pepper squid ($13), still sweet and tender under its thin breading, showered with diced bright-red and green peppers.
We tried three of the four desserts on offer (all $7) on our first visit: a dense bittersweet chocolate hazelnut terrine; chunks of caramelized pineapple and a ball of lime sorbet floating in coconut water studded with tiny pearls of tapioca; and a confectioner's plate, a changing assortment of little bites, which that night featured a sesame macaroon, a lemon-curd–filled chocolate, a chocolate truffle, and a tiny passionfruit pâté de fruit with a couple of other sweets. On our second visit, the sole remaining choice of Thai basil ice cream didn't intrigue us.
I now find myself wishing I'd tried a Pisco Apricot Tropical (Marion Farms biodynamic Pisco, Small Hand Foods pineapple gum syrup, apricot brandy, lime, and Angostura bitters, $10), or the Tiger's Milk No. II (Spanish brandy, rum, sugar, cream, and nutmeg, $10), for dessert, which might help me forget that I hadn't eaten anything quite as exciting there as Phan's famous Slanted Door and Out the Door shaking beef, caramelized chicken claypot, or cellophane noodles with Dungeness crab.