Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Slanted Door - 08/29/2011

1 Ferry Bldg
San Francisco, CA 94111
(415) 861-8032

The Slanted Door has been on my list of restaurants to try ever since my formative days as a foodie when I worked for a start-up in the Bay Area right out of undergrad. Unfortunately I never made it up to the restaurant back then so I couldn't pass up a chance to have lunch this time around.

I first heard about the restaurant in 2005 and even after a decade in business, the Slanted Door maintains a formidable, if mixed, reputation as one of the best Vietnamese restaurants in the city. Fast forward another five years the restaurant has moved from its original location to a new home right on the water in the Ferry Building and remains as popular as ever with a room full of well-heeled professionals and even more people still waiting for a table during the lunch rush.

Charles Phan opened The Slanted Door in November of 1995 and the restaurant quickly gained a reputation for it's modern take on Vietnamese cuisine. Today using high-quality sustainable ingredients isn't particularly noteworthy, but 17 years ago, and doing so at Asian restaurant to boot, it was downright groundbreaking. If that wasn't enough, the restaurant also features an extensive wine list and a very well executed cocktail program featuring mostly old fashioned recipes, quite the departure from most Asian restaurants where alcohol is an afterthought at best.

Phan was born in Vietnam, but left as a young child following the turmoil of the Vietnam War and settled in San Francisco's Tenderloin district. Like most immigrant families, Charles and his siblings worked multiple jobs to support their family. Phan ended up studying architecture at UC Berkeley to appease his father, but eventually found his way back to his true passion: food. Incredibly, Charles opened The Slanted Door with no prior experience; convincing several of his family members join him in his venture, many of whom still work at the restaurant today. In addition to the Slanted Door, Phan owns three Vietnamese take out joints (Out the Door), a modern Chinese restaurant (Heaven's Dog), plus a casual cafe (academycafe) and a Cal-Med restaurant (The Moss Room) both located at the California Academy of Science. Admirably, Phan also gives back to the community, participating in numerous charity events throughout the year.

Gin Fizz Tropical - Plymouth gin, Small Hand Foods orgeat and pineapple gum, lime, egg white, soda water
A slight twist on a Silver Gin Fizz, the drink maintains a textural element from the egg white foam and mixes that with sweet and sour nuances of the pineapple gomme and orgeat syrup.

strubbe flemish ale - a sour red ale
Ever since my first taste of Duchess de Bourgone, I've been hooked on sour ale. This was a lighter variety, the typically bright sour cherry note are not balanced by the caramelized malty sweetness on the other sour ales that I've tried.

saison dupont - belgian farmhouse ale
Saison style beers have long been one of my favorites, funkiness aside, the floral aromas and grassy tang paired effectively with many of the courses.

california yellowtail - with crispy shallots and thai basil
The yellowtail was one of my favorite things on the menu, the fish itself is fresh clean and oily but cut wider giving it a tender fleshiness. The heavenly essence and light crunch of the fried shallots add a concentrated savory weight to the fish.

half dozen oysters - island creek (ma), kumamoto (ca), drake's bay (ca)
On our way to The Slanted Door, we walked by the Hog Island Oyster company which got me craving the succulent little bivalves. We opted for a full dozen oysters and asked our waitress to select her three favorite varieties. The oysters were fresh enough to enjoy without any accompaniments. My favorite of the three was the Kumamoto a bit sweeter than the Island Creek and Drake's Bay which had more brine and minerality respectively.

wild california uni - with black tobiko, avocado, cucumber
The creaminess of the avocado meshes well with the uni making for a lusciously creamy texture broken up by the taut pops of the tobiko and light crunch of the cucumber. The uni is fresh but unfortunately the over-aggressive application of acidity which masks the flavor of the roe.

green papaya - with pickled carrot, tofu, rau ram and roasted peanuts
Despite my unbridled loathing for ripe papaya, I find the unripe version of the fruit positively delicious. Crisp, vegetal, with a slightly astringent mouthfeel, the papaya is a nice base for the light salad of pickled vegetables and aromatic rau ram.

chilled greenlip mussels - steamed in wine and lemongrass with roasted chili aioli
Not exactly raw per se, the oysters were prepared in a classic light wine sauce with the lemongrass helping to balance the shellfish's more aggressive flavors while the earthy vegetal spice of the aioli gives the dish a bit of an edge.

shrimp and pork wonton soup - with five spice pork and egg noodles
I don't really think of wonton soup as Vietnamese and flavor-wise this was pretty similar to the wonton noodle soup I grew up eating, still a solid effort nonetheless with the only twist was the bits of pork fat which gave the broth a pleasing weighty richness.

mesquite grilled lamb sausage and kusshi oysters - chinese black olive and preserved lemon relish
The dainty Kusshi oysters were even better than those on the half-shell we had earlier thanks to the astringent tang of the pickled daikon. The lamb was equally impressive, a multifaceted blend of game, fat, and spice. Individually the two components of the dish are both quite good but I don't see the rationale behind pairing them. Perhaps we should have eaten the sausage first then use the oysters for a palate cleanser.

grass-fed estancia shaking beef - cubed filet mignon, watercress, red onions and lime sauce
While this was probably the best preparation of shaking beef that I've ever tasted, something in my soul quails at the idea of paying $36 dollars for shaking beef. Despite being a bit overcooked, the beef itself was quite tender as would be expected with a high quality filet mignon. Still, for me the best part of the course was the bed of watercress and red onion which absorbed the beefy sapor of the beef.

dirty girl farm haricots vert - with beech mushrooms and roasted chili
This humble plate of French beans proved to be one of the highlights of the meal. The beans possess a capacious snappiness and are seasoned with a pleasing piquant spice. The beech mushrooms were a wonderful addition that seemed to absorb and amplify the savory essence of the sauce.

Queen's Park Swizzle - Pampero Aniversario rum, mint, lime, Angostura and Peychaud's bitters, crushed ice
The swizzle is a beautiful looking cocktail of Trinidadian origin. I was expecting something on the lighter side but the kick of the rum is immediately apparent, with heady scents of mint and a potent bitter kick.

spicy monterey squid - with pineapple, sweet peppers, jalapeño and thai basil
I had high hopes for this dish but neither the concept nor the execution was up to par. The squid itself was tender but inexplicably bland what I did taste felt overly sweet and clumsy a far cry from the balance I expected from the jalapeño and basil.

raspberry-rose shaved ice - condensed milk & aloe
I thought the shaved ice was a bit off the mark. The floral tones of the rose and liveliness of the raspberry were enjoyable but the shaved ice was far too coarse, resulting in the crunch of ice chips instead of the airy powdery texture of a true shaved ice.

lychee cotton candy
I'm ashamed to admit it but I love cotton candy. Even now the feel of spun sugar dissolving on the tongue evokes that child-like feeling of wonderment. The lychee flavor was a nice touch, adding a tropical sharpness to the otherwise monolithic flavor of raw sugar.

Overall, the food at The Slanted Door doesn't quite reach the level of more recent contemporary Asian restaurants like Lukshon or Red Medicine. There were some missteps along the way with flavors feel a bit unbalanced or blunt and some of the menu items feel dated and painfully out of place at a restaurant of this caliber. It's a bit unfair to say that The Slanted Door feels tired, rather I feel the restaurant has become a victim of its own success. The "slanted door spring rolls" typify the problem; on the menu since the restaurant opened, they are no different than the rolls served at every other Vietnamese restaurant aside from being treble the price. At the same time, I suspect that many of the restaurant's regular customers would revolt if Phan and company were to take them off the menu. Still the menu is extensive enough that there are plenty of selections for both the conservative and the adventurous.

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