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The Asian Collection 

On exhibit: Vietnamese, Cambodian, Korean, and Chinese restaurants

Wednesday, Mar 26 2003
Not that I need an excuse to eat in four different Asian restaurants in a week, especially in San Francisco, but anticipating the opening of the Asian Art Museum provided the inspiration. The city's proximity to what was then known as the Orient was one of its prime attractions for my Asian-art-loving father, and going to see the de Young's Brundage collection in its various incarnations over the years was a leitmotif of my childhood. Something my father said to me quite casually as we stood admiring, I think, a jade Buddha, colored my whole perception of the mysterious world of art and collecting: "Brundage has several people who travel the world full time, just looking for things to acquire for him." That job sounded like the fun part to me; I felt sorry for Mr. Brundage, stuck in some stuffy office, wielding the checkbook while his minions got to frequent galleries, auctions, and exotic shops.

I must admit that I'm one of the people who loved the proximity of the de Young to the kitschy but perfect Japanese Tea Garden: What better combination than to follow a perusal of Edo-period armor, carved ivory netsuke, and watercolor scrolls with a feast of weak jasmine tea and stale almond cookies while overlooking a man-made landscape mimicking the subject of the watercolors?

But man does not live by weak tea and stale cookies alone, and time marches on. The Brundage collection, augmented by gifts and acquisitions by many hands, now numbers more than 15,000 items; it long ago outgrew its modest de Young wing and reopened last week in the refurbished former Main Library. I was sufficiently a fan of Gae Aulenti's conversion of the 1900 Gare d'Orsay into the Musée d'Orsay to be excited by what she'd do with a 1917 beaux-arts building.

In the meantime, I ate. With apologies to critic David Thomson (who asked these same questions about film): Is food an art form? Or something far more complicated? The tiny Cordon Bleu restaurant, as it styles itself -- though the eight- seat Formica counter fronting an open grill, with three tiny tables tucked in the back, reads more like a classic, Edward Hopper- ish diner -- seems an unlikely place to churn out masterpieces on a daily basis. But the (slightly hedged) boast printed on its otherwise modest menu ("Possibly the best chicken you will ever have outside of Vietnam") turns out to be a simple statement of fact. There are only five items on offer at the Cordon Bleu: imperial rolls, aka spring rolls; shish kebab, which here does not involve any kind of a skewer but is razor-thin slices of rib eye steak soaked in a sugary marinade and crisped on the grill; country salad, which is largely chopped cabbage; meat sauce on rice; and the previously mentioned chicken, rubbed with Asian five-spice powder (star anise, fennel, cinnamon, cloves, and Sichuan peppercorns), roasted, and reheated on the grill. You can order any of these a la carte ("Tea is not included with a la carte," the menu warns, but it didn't arrive with my combination plate, either) or in a variety of combinations. A quick perusal of the five plates reveals that if you pick #5, you can feast on all five of the Cordon Bleu's specialties for the princely sum of $7.40 -- also the top ticket on the menu. And it's more than you can eat, despite the fact that each item on the plate is (possibly) the best example of its genre that you've ever eaten. The crisp imperial roll is porky with a vegetable crunch, the thin steak irresistible, the meat sauce ever so slightly funky on the fluffy rice, and the chicken, oh my God, soft and moist and perfumed.

But a couple of days later I was hungry again, so Janice and I drove up to Bernal Heights in search of Cambodian food, on the recommendation of my friend Cathy, who'd sussed out every inexpensive restaurant in the city when she was an impecunious grad student. "I can't tell you how many times I had lunch at Angkor Borei," she said, and when we saw that the eatery's special $6.50 lunch included not one but two choices from a photo layout of nine enticing dishes (as well as a bowl of House Special Soup, which turned out, with its lemongrass-scented coconut milk broth filled with tiny mushrooms, chicken, and vegetables, to be very special indeed), we knew why. We adored our starter, chosen from the regular menu: a stack of small leaves of fresh spinach surrounded by tiny bowls full of chopped ginger, peanuts, diced fresh lime, red onion, chili, dried shrimp, toasted coconut, and a thick, dark, sweet sauce. We rolled our own, like tiny bite-size tacos, varying the proportions just for fun. We enjoyed the spicy chili squid and the similarly sauced chili pork, but the hit of the special lunch was the mild red chicken curry, full of snappy green beans and carrots. Another bowlful of the curry came with the cold Cambodian noodles, ready to be mixed with them and their accompanying stacks of bean sprouts, cucumber slices, chopped cabbage, shredded carrots, and leaves of sweet basil. For dessert we had crunchy, perfectly fried bananas with velvety coconut ice cream.

A couple more days, and we were hungry for art, arriving on the last day of the members' preview of the new Asian Art Museum (aka the Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture) at 11. We staggered out three hours later, having wended our way through India, Southeast Asia (including Vietnam and Cambodia), Persia, Tibet, China, and Korea, having seen thousands of objects yet feeling oddly unsatisfied. It wasn't only because of my father's disappointment that the Chinese Jade Treasury was one of the several rooms on the third floor not yet open. Nor was it the discovery that the entire Japanese wing wasn't ready to be seen, either, so that the carefully planned, rather didactic tour of Asia by way of Buddhism ended abruptly and anticlimactically with an odd assortment of Korean objects including, strangely, the only contemporary pieces we'd seen all day. I know that a library is not a train station, and tucked alongside the sedate galleries are some stunning spaces, in one of which, Samsung Hall, I joined a long line of penitents waiting to ink their own souvenir Tibetan prayer flags. But it does seem odd that the place has been designed to urge you to bypass the most striking element of the original building -- the massive staircase -- and instead to trundle along toward a bank of elevators that will take you up to the third floor. Cafe Asia, the museum's Pan-Asian restaurant, wasn't charring the sesame beef or grilling the salmon misoyaki just yet, so my father proposed that we park closer to our next destination, the Old First Church at Van Ness and Sacramento, where we were going to hear a piano recital by Lois Brandwynne, and walk down to Polk in search of a likely spot.

"Look," he said, "we can choose from Korean, Chinese, Tibetan, and Thai food in one block."

"Except that the Chinese is closed and the Tibetan is a gift shop," I said.

And for our next trick, we turned into a Korean restaurant: Hahn's Hibachi, one of a small, jokey, cheap chain, whose rib combination plate (a big beef rib, an even bigger pork rib, and a thin beef short rib) and chicken kebabs (four skewers of thin-sliced, marinated chicken), both with rice and a lovely, peppery, cold bean sprout salad, weren't especially refined, but satisfied.

What was refined were the rather exquisite dim sum that floated onto our plates at Ton Kiang the next night, where I'd assembled a group of eight, including friends who'd come from Toronto for a San Francisco weekend. The folks at Ton Kiang had told me that they serve dim sum "all day every day," as the menu has it, but not that the carts don't come around at dinner, so we chose a dozen dim sum from the 20 or so on their printed list. (I had the feeling that more variety might show up on the carts when my sister asked if the restaurant had stewed chicken feet, and was promptly offered her choice of chicken or duck feet.) The dim sum were impeccable, whether a standard such as barbecued pork buns (cha siu bao) or something more unusual, like the sticky rice with chopped meat wrapped in a leaf (noi mai gai) or the amazingly delicate yet fragrant pea tips and shrimp dumplings (dao miu gao), the only dish that demanded a second round. The Hakkanese specialties we tried after the dim sum seemed much less interesting than they sounded: house-made rice wine sauce chicken with pickled greens, steak in a shredded potato nest, braised e-mien noodles with crab, twice-cooked pork with cabbage in chili-bean sauce (chosen when the enticing-looking steamed bacon with dried mustard green that we'd spied on a neighboring table turned out to be the last portion of the night). But I'll return to that plush room for dim sum -- preferably during the day, when the carts are rolling. Maybe in just two or three weeks. My father is still eager to see the Jade Room.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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