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Three Out of Four 

We like the beautiful decor, excellent service, and interesting drinks more than the uneven food at Bong Su

Wednesday, Sep 20 2006
There's a lot I like about Bong Su, the stylish new Vietnamese restaurant south of Market. I find its decor not only chic and amusing, but, with its many changes rung on earth tones, and earthy components such as wood and stone, soothing and comfortable. Every detail has been carefully thought out. Before your meal begins, you enter through a door graced with a sculptural representation in golden metal of the plumeria flower that is the restaurant's namesake (bong su). At the end of the repast, your check is brought to the table in a beautiful lacquer box, nestled next to a fragrant plumeria blossom that you're invited to take home with you, which somehow didn't feel kitschy to me and that's a tribute to the two pleasant, relaxing meals I had at Bong Su: The girl who entered the restaurant usually associates gift flowers in restaurants with gardenias floating in oversized silly drinks at tiki lounges.

What else did I like? The silky, sensuous fabrics, ballgown-worthy nutmeg-brown satin woven in and out of wooden slats near the foyer, and gauzy saffron hangings in the window, that were contrasted with sandstone friezes that looked more Indian to me than Vietnamese. The brilliantly lit glassed-in wine "cellar" at the back of the loungey barroom. The signature cocktails, which for once were intelligently designed, expertly concocted, and worth the $9 each they cost.

I so enjoyed the Bong Su aperitif (vodka, passion fruit, pear nectar, Aqua Perfecta poire liqueur, Prosecco); Kaffir cocktail (Hangar One kaffir vodka, lemongrass syrup); and Cool Cucumber (Plymouth gin, muddled cucumber, orange juice, Campari) that I quaffed, that I'd gladly drink my way through the entire list. The assortment of beverages in general here is thoughtful, generous, alluring, from the interesting wine list to the two pages of temptations (wines, sherries, Madeiras, ports, Armagnacs, cognacs) appended to the dessert menu and the full page of half a dozen teas — flowerlike infusions served in squat glass teapots. (Though serving only Vietnamese coffee seems oddly reductive, and devoting an extensive paragraph to its description a bit much.)

I liked the enthusiasm of the staff, dressed in uniforms that echoed the fabrics and colors of the room. I liked the elegant pottery serving dishes, the long-handled silverware, the fragile glasses. I liked the comfy U-shaped booths that I occupied twice, nestled between two friends, once at dinner, once at lunch (though you're more likely to be given a seat at a table).

This is what I wish I liked more: the food. At dinner, I glanced at the menu and thought, hmmm, Slanted Door: shrimp spring rolls, crab and garlic noodles, clay pot chicken, five-spice duck, shaking beef. Not that you won't find some of these dishes at other Vietnamese restaurants, but I knew I would judge Bong Su's pricey versions against the Slanted Door's iconic ones. Bong Su's one-page menu offers eight starters, six dishes listed under "soups, salads, & noodles," nine entrees, four vegetables, and six different preparations of rice.

Little symbols alongside identify the preparations' provenance as Northern, Central, or Southern Vietnam. The Central Vietnamese dishes were the most unfamiliar to me, including the duck mustard wraps that Ryan, Rebecca, and I started with at dinner, shreds of cold five-spice duck, slivers of mango, and cucumber, carefully wrapped in mustard greens exquisitely tied with chives, and served with a sweet, tangy, clear dipping sauce. I found the chilly miniature burritos adorable but almost tasteless without their sauce. Much better was the fat roasted quail, coated with honey and, again, five-spice powder, stuffed with sticky rice, shiitake mushrooms, and green onions, served partially disjointed. It was fun to gnaw the miniature drumsticks, and the bird's breast meat was still moist.

Both the shaking beef (cubed beef tenderloin sautéed with garlic and red onion, served with watercress) and the clay pot chicken suffered from comparison with the versions I adore at the Slanted Door; in fact, I had a better shaking beef a few months ago at Will's House, a decidedly unpretentious Vietnamese place. The clay pot chicken at the Door swims in a nuanced sauce heated with chilis and ginger; here, we got pieces of barely warm, undistinguished grilled chicken plopped atop sticky jasmine rice sauteed with lily buds, bits of Chinese sausage, and shiitake mushrooms. The rice was tasty, tastier in fact than the two alluringly described but underflavored rice dishes (prettily served in banana-leaf cups) we ordered as sides, red rice (with tomato and garlic) and Hainan (cooked in chicken stock with ginger and star anise), but the chicken felt like an afterthought. We also tried candy-sweet caramelized black cod, cooked with garlic, black pepper, onion, and molasses.

I was surprised and pleased with our desserts: Their flavors seemed sharper and, oddly, less sweet than what had come before. The kaffir lime panna cotta was bracing and herbal, almost medicinal-tasting (in a good way) and nicely paired with ripe raspberries; the lemongrass-ginger crème brûlée was similarly tangy and sophisticated, its creamy texture set against a crisp, sandy brown sugar shortbread cookie. The big hit was the banana beignets, the warm soft fruit robed in batter crunchy with black sesame seeds, served with black sesame ice cream. (Before dessert arrived, we were treated to a tiny cup of lotus tea with a chewy preserved lotus nut; a fragrant interregnum.) Because Ryan told us that an instructional Vietnamese-language tape was playing in the men's room, we checked out the ladies' room, which was sleek and chic, but sans language instruction. When I got in my car, I was taken aback to see that we'd spent nearly three hours at dinner: a tribute to Bong Su's relaxing atmosphere.

Mark, Kris, and I were on a tighter schedule at lunch (he had to return to work in Embarcadero 4, and Kris and I were going to catch the Picasso and Monet shows at the Legion of Honor). The menu and prices are the same as the dinner one, with the addition of a $17, two-course "express" lunch option, which we ignored. The appetizer we shared, shrimp cupcakes (again, an unfamiliar Central Vietnamese dish), was the most interesting thing I'd had so far at Bong Su: six little rice flour "crisps," rather more chewy than crisp, each containing a fat pink baby prawn studded with bright green chopped scallions, and served with a rice vinegar sauce. The crab and garlic noodles came in a covered bowl, the cellophane rice noodles hiding an extravagance of lump crabmeat and a huge chunk of ginger, topped with sprigs of celery. I found this dish pleasant (and when I ate the leftovers, cold, several hours later, I liked it even better, as the flavors had intensified), but at the risk of sounding like a broken record, the Slanted Door's crab noodles, my single favorite dish there, are magical, even though containing considerably less crab.

The grilled Southern pork, marinated in lemongrass and soy, advertised as chops, was sliced loin and sadly dryish; we loved its accompaniment of chewy, silky fried taro puffs, the only thing served piping hot. The four nicely trimmed rib lamb chops, coated in hoisin sauce, were perfectly OK, and served with baby bok choy and a heap of crisp, fried taro slivers. Passion fruit duck was firm, chewy sliced duck breast, in a very mild sauce, with pretty sautéed chive flower buds. The emerald rice could have used more cilantro and coriander. On the whole, Bong Su offers a pleasant, upscale Vietnamese dining experience, but its dishes don't have the snap, fire, and nuanced layers of the more complicated Vietnamese fare famously introduced at the Slanted Door.

We didn't have enough time to wait for the passion fruit soufflé, alas, so we shared an oddly mingy portion of coconut tapioca, nicely adorned with roasted pineapple, mango sorbet, and basil syrup. "I told my dinner companions they should try the Slanted Door," I mentioned to Mark and Kris. "But at the Door," Kris pointed out, "we wouldn't have been able to hear each other." "And," Mark said, "you can get a reservation here."

They were right. As I said, there were a lot of things I liked about Bong Su.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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