Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Dish on Dining: Out The Door

Dressed up Street Food at Restaurant Pricing

865 Market St., San Francisco
(Basement level of the Westfield San Francisco Centre at Union Square)
Open daily
No reservations, major credit cards accepted

Some of you may already know that I’ll be traveling to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon next week (whoo-hoo!), so I decided to put myself in the right frame of mind for that country’s tasty, fresh street food. Some of the best culinary delights in Vietnam are purchased from street vendors scooping up bowls of pho (the noodle soup) and bun (rice vermicelli noodles without the soup) or assembling fresh ingredients sandwiched in a crusty French baguette to create a banh mi.

When it comes to Vietnamese food in San Francisco, the platinum standard has been set by The Slanted Door, the elegant Ferry Building restaurant that had its humble beginnings in a cozy old storefront on Valencia Street in the Mission District. The Slanted Door and its Executive Chef Charles Phan (a James Beard award winner) has raised the profile of Vietnamese cuisine in the United States, creating new twists to Vietnamese standards that have delighted many Bay Area residents, visitors and even President Bill Clinton.

I fondly recall eating at the original Slanted Door, bustling with dot-com dressed twentysomethings enjoying dishes accented with fish sauce and chili. Phan, who opened the restaurant with several family members but is essentially the face of The Slanted Door, could often be seen visiting tables and talking with diners, his brow still moist from the heat of the kitchen.

The dishes served at The Slanted Door can hardly be considered Vietnamese street food. I doubt I’ll be finding Meyer Ranch shaking beef or pan-seared boat scallops while strolling the busy streets of Saigon. Phan has created a dining experience with his sleek Ferry Building restaurant, which is many times larger than the original Mission location. People from all over the world continue to visit The Slanted Door to try Phan’s innovative dishes.

But last month, with the grandiose opening of the Westfield San Francisco Centre, Phan has entered a new phase of his Slanted Door empire with the opening of Out The Door, a casual nod to his Slanted Door restaurant and a clear homage to Vietnamese street food. Tucked in the corner of the Centre’s basement Food Emporium, Out The Door offers several selections of salads, pho, bun, porridge and banh mi.

Phan has experimented with his Out The Door concept with a stand behind his Slanted Door restaurant in the main lobby of the Ferry Building. But this version of Out The Door dwarfs the Ferry Building’s tiny counter in many ways.

Out The Door at the San Francisco Centre is made up of a sit-down dining area, a take-out counter and a mini store selling Asian cookware and ingredients. Reflecting Phan’s eye for architectural design, the location is elegantly designed and lit with ambient lighting to create something close to a club environment, attracting maybe a younger, hipper crowd than the eating establishment who visit The Slanted Door.

On my first visit to Out The Door, I decided to dine at the small restaurant area. The nod to casual dining was obvious in the attire of the front and wait staff. I was greeted by a young gentleman dressed in a simple long-sleeve shirt (untucked) and jeans. The servers wore uniformed T-shirts and jeans.

The menu was quite extensive, including several versions of the street foods I mentioned earlier and some recognizable favorites from The Slanted Door, such as the jicama and grapefruit salad and ahi entrée. But there were signs that the menu didn’t include very traditional Vietnamese dishes (actually, I guess I can’t really judge what’s traditional Vietnamese dishes until after I come back from my trip). For example, there were the Niman Ranch beef and the Niman Ranch pork ribs with hoisin sauce, and chicken dishes made with five spice. (Phan’s family is ethnic Chinese, having fled China to Vietnam soon after the communist gained power, and then later fleeing that country for San Francisco following the fall of Saigon. So his menu definitely reflects his Chinese heritage.)

Despite the many selections, I was swayed by my server, who recommended the daikon cakes with shitake mushrooms and spicy soy sauce (an often suggested appetizer here and at The Slanted Door). I also ordered the special off-the-menu Lemongrass Grilled Pork Chops because I love the fragrance of lemongrass and I love Vietnamese-style pork.

The daikon cakes arrived sitting in the spicy soy sauce in a shallow bowl. I would have preferred the sauce on the side, but I enjoyed the texture of the daikon cakes. Again, influenced by his Chinese background, Phan fashioned these daikon cakes after the popular pan-fried lo bok gau (listed often in English as turnip cakes) eaten at dim sum restaurants. I didn’t find Out The Door’s version especially different.

My lemongrass pork chops came with roasted potatoes and a dipping sauce made of shallots and soy sauce, which was so dark I almost thought it was molasses. Cutting into the pork, I could tell this was a piece of quality meat, undoubtedly from Niman Ranch. But the tricky thing about pork is that if you let it sit a tad too long, it can seem a bit dry when eating. That was the situation in this case where the meat was tender but slightly dry. The potatoes were perfectly browned and cooked, however.

The flavoring of the pork lacked a strong lemongrass essence. Granted lemongrass is very subtle, but I felt like I was eating the tender roasted pork that typically hangs in the windows of restaurants in Chinatown. Although I enjoy those Chinese roasted pork, I typically don’t end up paying close to $17.50 for just two slices, which is what I ended up paying at Out the Door.

Minor point: While I liked the overall décor of Out The Door, I felt my dining experience was affected by two oddities. One, the grilling of meats (I’m thinking the pork) from the kitchen often drifts into the dining area so you’re often greeted by a haze when you arrive. Second, Out The Door’s design allows the visitor to view the kitchen in many ways. When you’re walking in from the outside, windows with streams of trickling water offers your first glimpse inside the kitchen. As you walk pass the take-out counter and into the dining area, you see an exposed kitchen counter where the chefs are busy at work. And finally (althought it was probably unintentional and really only at the table I was sitting at), a row of tables are aligned with the kitchen’s entrance, which does not have a swinging door or curtains. So from that vantage point, you have a clear view inside the kitchen as workers come and go, and servers come in and out with your dishes. The design has given Out The Door too much of an open door policy into its kitchen (and behaviors of its kitchen staff) for my taste.

On my return visit, I ordered a dish from the take-out counter and ate it with the rest of the mall shoppers at the open tables in the food court. Out The Door’s take-out menu is virtually a duplication of the sit-down menu, except served in plastic containers. (I found it unusual that Out The Door’s take out dishes were all in plastic containers while other Food Emporium eateries serve their meals on ceramic dishes with silverware.)

I ordered the 5-Spice Grilled Chicken over Vermicelli rice noodles (the traditional bun dish). It was prepared in the traditional manner with the chicken on top of the rice noodles. Under the rice noodles were the fresh herbs and bean sprouts that add a nice crunch and freshness to this dish.

While the chicken was perfectly cooked, it tasted like any simple grilled chicken. I didn’t detect a trace of 5-spice (not even one). The noodles are typically dressed with fish sauce, but the sauce in my bun seemed mild. I actually had to go back and ask for extra fish sauce to spice up my bowl. I’ve had similar-tasting bun bowls at Tenderloin restaurants but for half the price of the $9.50 I paid for Out The Door’s take-out version.

Out The Door is a clear sign of the success of Phan’s Slanted Door vision. On one of my visit, I saw Phan dressed simply in a light blue T-shirt showing off his new spot to some friends. I believe Phan is sincerely one of the nicest chefs around, so I do want him to succeed. But I feel the growth of his Slanted Door empire is taking him away from the kitchen as he focuses more on the business side. Whenever a chef spends less time in the kitchen, that’s when the quality and taste goes out the door.

While Out The Door is far from being a disappointment (it does offer quality ingredients), it is overpriced for Vietnamese street food. And soon I’ll be in Saigon getting a bowl of bun for $1. When that happens, Out the Door’s pricing will look astronomical.
Single guy rating: 2.5 stars (perfect for new diners and tired foodies/shoppers looking for a nice place to rest)

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

Out the Door in San Francisco


Seth said...

The question is, will you go back to Out The Door again? Nice but overpriced doesn't sound compelling.
Have fun on your trip. I hope you find time some pics and comments about Saigon street food.

Chef Ben said...

I think if I was at the mall with a friend and we wanted a nice place to sit and eat, then I would go to the dining area (but never again get the daikon cakes which I can just get at my favorite dim sum restaurant; I may try their salads next). But I definitely won't get something from the take-out counter because you pay the same price as the restaurant but I feel you get less in their take out containers.

P.S. I'm hoping I can find an Internet cafe in Saigon so I can continue to post while in Vietnam. We'll see...