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Things Change 

But the Vietnamese food at the latest Slanted Door location still shines

Wednesday, Aug 25 2004
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When I heard grumblings from friends and readers about the Slanted Door after it opened in the Ferry Building, its third and glitziest location, I chalked it up to human nature: the almost universal resistance to change and the continuing sense of loss many experienced when the restaurant left its original spot in the grungy Mission District for its temporary (and larger and fancier) roost on Brannan Street while the Ferry Building renovation was completed. Some said as much, forthrightly -- the clientele at the Mission site was hipper. They hated the surge of commuters and Financial District workers clogging up the Embarcadero bar and lounge after 5. They hated the fact that you could order from the full Slanted Door menu at the bar (during meal service hours), but only from a tiny (and misleadingly named) "bar menu" if you were seated in the lounge, a row of comfy upholstered stools with low tables, eight feet from the bar. They hated the busy signals when they called for reservations, and that, when they got through, the place was booked for a couple of weeks.

I was reminded of what Yogi Berra once said about a popular spot: "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded." And furthermore, I thought, "Get over yourself! The Slanted Door opened in 1995!" The universally loved, hard-working Phans (chef Charles; his parents, Hung and Quyen, who arrived here in 1977; and the 20 or so other family members who work in the restaurant) deserve their success. Nothing stays the same.

And then I had a few disquieting experiences myself. The first time I went to the new Slanted Door, I thought I'd have a bowl of pho at the bar and check the place out, enjoy the view, before a reading at Book Passage. I sat down just after 2:30 -- when the restaurant stops serving lunch -- and was told that I could only order from the bar menu, which offered little that inspired me. I chose the famous Slanted Door spring rolls and a gingery cocktail of kaffir lime-infused vodka. The shrimp-topped spring rolls, wrapped in fresh, soft, rice noodle dough and served with a spicy peanut dipping sauce, were, as always, excellent (though they were -- unlike many Slanted Door specialties -- much like ones available elsewhere, even in modest Vietnamese banh mi shops). The drink was not only delicious, but also knee-tremblingly strong. I would have been happy enough had not a couple who came in at the same time, sitting one seat away from me at the bar, been given free rein of the menu. Dish after alluring dish arrived in front of them. They were obviously friends of the house and seemed to be wine professionals, but still, since there were only three of us there at that hour who wanted food, it left me feeling like the odd man out.

My second meal (well, you could hardly call that first snack a meal) was weeks later, for dinner with my parents. I wanted a Sunday night dinner to avoid the commuter crush, so I reserved for a Sunday three weeks hence, after a lengthy conversation with the reservationist about the best time to dine to enjoy the sunset.

When we arrived for the long-anticipated meal, we were led past the prime tables to the far leg of the L-shaped room and tucked into a booth with, charitably speaking, obstructed views (well, there was a great one of the parking lot next door, soon obscured itself by a curtain drawn to protect our eyes from the setting sun). The booth was comfy, and it shielded us a bit from the truly astonishing noisiness of the room, whose marble floors and two walls of glass don't do much to damp things down. ("If it was any louder, you'd have to learn sign language," my mother said.) Again I felt like a poor relation.

We were considerably soothed by the dinner that followed, especially the three crab dishes that my mother and I enjoyed, our hunger for the crustacean overcoming any thoughts of imbalance (or concern for my father, not a lover of most seafood). The corn crab soup was nothing like the cornstarch-thickened soup usually served under that name, but rather a cup of clear, fragrant broth, full of crab flakes and just-cut corn kernels, which allowed their true flavors to sing. (It was the bargain of the evening; a luxurious dish for only $4.) We liked the tiny, quickly eaten soft-shell crab, simply cooked with garlic, ginger, and onions. But we were most dazzled by the cellophane noodles with fresh Dungeness crabmeat, a simple, delicate preparation that showcased the crab brilliantly, with little to cloud its briny sweetness save a few chopped green onions. (The half bottle of Selbach Riesling we chose from the interesting wine list, heavy on the sweeter Austrian and German whites that are perfect with this spicy food, was delightful with the crab.)

The three sturdier meat dishes were very good, if not as thrilling as the crab ones. We enjoyed Meyer Ranch shaking beef, the cubes of filet mignon tasty and tender, as befitting their provenance, stir-fried with garlic and lots of slivered red onions; a clay pot of chicken in a thickish caramel sauce heated with ginger and chilies -- soft, sweet, and easy to eat; and a grilled Australian free-range rack of lamb, which seemed pricey at $26.50 until it arrived -- three gigantic double-rib chops, perched on a mountain of fried potatoes, with a dish of tangy tamarind sauce (better on the potatoes than obscuring the mildly gamy, true lamb flavor). The chops were the equal of an entree in a four-star steakhouse.

I don't remember a chocolate dessert ever arousing as much excitement in us as did the firm, round milk chocolate-caramel mousse that my mother and I shared. Trying to conjure the texture and blend of flavors now, I wish we'd ordered another, especially because the mousse didn't appear on the dessert menu after our latest meal.

Which started, again, with a little bump. When I called, weeks in advance, to make a reservation for eight for dinner at 5:30 on a Monday night, I was told that with eight or more people your table is limited to a prix fixe menu, choosing three appetizers, three entrees, and one vegetable dish, with a chef's choice dessert platter. I objected: I would be dining with foodies now living on the East Coast, longtime Slanted Door patrons, who would be indignant if they couldn't choose from the whole menu. The reservationist was implacable: "It's too much work for the kitchen otherwise," she said. I was shocked. Isn't it a basic truism that the more people dining in an Asian restaurant the better, since you get to sample more dishes? Was the restaurant run for the happiness of its customers or the ease of its kitchen?

And then I remembered that one of our party is 3 years old. (Another is 11, but he has a better appetite than I do, so I didn't bring him up.) When I mentioned that, the reservationist was amenable to listing us as a party of seven, avoiding the whole prix fixe question.

In the event, there were only seven of us, because Adam had to go to a meeting. This time I'd specified a table with a Bay Bridge view, and we were delighted with it; we had a view not only of the bay, but also of Tom Waits sitting at the next table. We ordered four starters, six entrees, and two vegetable dishes, and the food arrived, one or two platters at a time, in a cascade of deliciousness that went a long way toward erasing any lingering feelings of resentment I might have had.

The fat little barbecued Willis Ranch pork ribs in a sticky honey-hoisin sauce were met with such universal acclaim that I thought we might order another round, but our wonderful server warned us against it: "You've got plenty of food coming." The slivered green papaya salad, fragrant with the lemon-coriander flavor of the Vietnamese herb rau ram and crunchy with roasted peanuts, was an excellent fresh foil for the rich ribs. We loved the simple but exquisite stir-fry of fresh Florida gulf shrimp, pale pink against the pale green of English cucumber and pale gray of meaty oyster mushrooms; the much more complicated dish of plump, tender whole squid made plumper by a knowing stuffing of ground pork, tree ear mushrooms, and glass noodles, slicked with a bit of spicy orange sauce and arranged around a heap of firm squid tentacles; and the oven-roasted whole bass, its white flakes clean and sweet on their own, piquant when dipped in clear ginger-chili fish sauce. (This night we drank a fabulous French Vouvray.)

We found the Niman Ranch flank steak, stir-fried with wedges of Early Girl tomatoes, much more interesting than the shaking beef of the earlier meal, and the crisp legs of Liberty Farm duck, imbued with five-spice powder and served with baby carrots and translucent chunks of turnip and potato, were wonderful. The only disappointment was a rerun of the massive lamb chops: We ordered them medium rare, but they arrived too rare; after we returned them to the kitchen they came back butterflied and overcooked. Happily, they were removed from our check (if not our table, this time accompanied by chunks of sweet potato, even better with the tamarind sauce). Perhaps my favorite dish was the organic sweet corn, stir-fried with green onions and chanterelle mushrooms.

That is, until the superb and unusual desserts arrived: fluffy goat cheese cheesecake with sautéed Mission figs; Thai basil panna cotta in mango soup; and the surprise hit, tiny, soft, sweet mung bean dumplings in a strong, hot ginger broth. Adam arrived just in time to snag the last dumpling.

We were sorry he'd missed such a stellar meal. He went on to dine at Tadich's, on crab salad and sand dabs. Some things never change.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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