Friday, December 29, 2006

Dish on Dining: Nan King Road Bistro

Chinese bistro emphasizes freshness on 'Restaurant Row'

1360 9th Ave., San Francisco
9th & Irving (Inner Sunset)
Open for lunch and dinner
PH: (415) 753-2900

Since I was off from my regular day job this week, I got the chance to visit with some friends. Yesterday I had lunch with my friend Denise. Denise always tells others that I was the first to introduce her to the term "breeder." I referred to her and her husband as "breeders" awhile back. It's just something the gays do.

So yesterday I met Denise and her two daughters (I call them Exhibit A and Exhibit B in support of the "breeder" label) at 9th & Irving. This neighborhood is bustling with restaurants, but many of them are casual dining and kid-friendly. For some reason, the area has been trying to push the term "Restaurant Row" for the two-block area on 9th Avenue between Lincoln and Kirkham Streets. True, there are many restaurants but nothing that stands out as a destination restaurant other than the tried-and-true Ebisu and Park Chow.

A relatively newcomer to the row is Nan King Road Bistro, a casual Chinese restaurant that looks like any other Chinese spots from the outside with its plastic sign and drab windows. But when you walk inside, it's like you've discovered a funky neighborhood cafe with dramatic artworks on the colorful walls, bare concrete flooring and exposed ceilings.

The menu is a creative take on traditional Chinese dishes with other Asian influences, including Japanese and Korean cooking styles. Denise and I ordered the lunch specials and noodles for the girls. Lunch came with a hot-and-sour soup starter, which was wonderfully filled with a mix of ingredients such as strips of tofu, shiitake and bamboo shoots. But while the soup was hardy, it was more sour than hot (supposed to be spicy). Still, it was a warm start to our meal.

Denise had the simple Chicken with String Beans, which highlighted the season's green. It's typically done spicy, like several other dishes on the menu with the * asterisk, but Denise asked for mild. Which actually is what she got. While the ingredients were fresh, she felt it was a bit on the bland side.

I had the Sake-Miso Pork Tenderloin Fillet, which was thinly sliced pork tenderloin with cucumber, carrots, mushroom in a sake-miso sauce. Again, the pork was sliced perfectly thin and everything tasted fresh. But I didn't get a strong sense of sake or miso.

The Wok-fried Noodles was a simple bowl of Shanghai style noodles with a mix of vegetables and chicken strips. The girls dubbed this "yummy" and "good." I gave it a try and wholeheartedly agreed with the review by the 5-year-old and 3-year-old. It was good, with a slight sweetness in flavor mixed with the savoriness from the soy sauce. And Shanghai noodles (the thicker noodles) are always one of those stick-to-your-ribs kind of meal.

Nan King Road Bistro gets major points for the freshness and healthy-emphasis of their dishes. An earlier neighborhood review noted how Chinese restaurants are generally greasy and heavy in oil taste (she apparently haven't tried many Hong Kong-style restaurants) but that Nan King did not live up to that stereotype. And she's right in that perspective.

But what Nan King Road gains with its freshness, it loses in flavor. The inconsistency in taste among the dishes (too sour, too bland, too average) makes the meal feel more like dishes from an amateur home cook (but even I salt my food more) than a chef on "Restaurant Row."

Still, this Chinese bistro (by the way, no French influences in the meal as far as I can tell) has a nice homey, neighborhood feel and its contemporary surroundings make this a nice gathering for a simple, health-conscious and affordable meal. Which might be a good thing after all your holiday meals.

Minor note: Dishes can come with brown rice, emphasizing the healthiness of Nan King's menu. But be sure to ask for it because the wait staff isn't always on top of asking your preferences and will default to plain steam white rice.

Single guy rating: 2 stars (perfect for college students and families with young kids)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Cesar in Oakland

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