Thursday, January 31, 2008

Dish on Dining: Bong Su -- CLOSED

Vietnamese cuisine on a grand scale
UPDATE: This restaurant closed on 3/07/09 because of economic reasons and dispute with landlord.
311 Third St. (at Folsom), San Francisco
PH: 415.536.5800
Open for lunch, Monday–Friday, 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; dinner, Monday–Saturday, 5:30–10 p.m., Sunday, 5–9 p.m.
Reservations recommended, major credit cards accepted

My friend Margaret from Hawaii was in town this week for some business meetings, so we got together for dinner on Tuesday. I decided to pick a place within walking distance of her SOMA hotel, so I made reservations at Bong Su, the upscale Vietnamese restaurant by the same people behind the popular Tamarine in Palo Alto.

Joining us was Margaret’s mother-in-law, Norma. The three of us walked into the restaurant from our brisk walk on an unseasonably cold San Francisco night and were instantly warmed by the cozy, ambient lighting of the restaurant’s tasteful Southeast Asian décor.

Opened in 2006, Bong Su has a handsome room fit for royalty. You enter and get a quick glimpse of the chic bar area popular during happy hours and turn right into the huge dining room that includes not one but two large communal tables.

Margaret, Norma and I were seated in one of the side booths and were warmly greeted by our server, who wasn’t shy about sharing his recommendations from the menu. (OK, we did ask.) Bong Su offers dishes inspired by virtually all regions of Vietnam, from the styles of Hanoi in the north to the exquisite Hue style of Central Vietnam and finally the hearty and more well-known dishes of Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon and the south.

Going with our server’s recommendations, we started with the Hot Pot Beef Rolls ($9) and Honey Roasted Quail ($11). (BTW, we were eating family style, which is probably the best way to enjoy the dishes at Bong Su and most Asian restaurants.) I also ordered the papaya salad ($11), one of my favorite standard Vietnamese fare because I loved the light, refreshing taste of the shredded green papaya.

Up first was the beef rolls and papaya salad. The rolls were fresh-style, which means they weren’t deep-fried like imperial rolls. Thinly sliced Kobe beef were wrapped in the translucent rice paper with a big bunch of greens, including some perilla (Vietnamese version of the Japanese shiso leaves) and cucumber. It came with a sweet-and-sour dipping sauce with pineapples. While filling, I told Margaret that I could barely taste the Kobe beef because it was overpowered by all the vegetables.

The papaya salad was an elegant presentation of the thinly shredded and crunchy green papaya in a traditional light fish sauce dressing and basil. The chef added strips of dried beef, which I’ve never seen at other Vietnamese restaurants. It was a bit like beef jerky and added an interesting twist to the classic papaya salad.

Next came the quail, which is a favorite of Margaret. (She says she hardly finds them on the menus at restaurants in Hawaii.) The quail was roasted with five-spice and honey and stuffed with sticky rice. It was cooked perfectly, making it easy to cut into the succulent meat. While the honey glaze was nice, I didn’t find the sticky rice particularly tasty. It could have been taken to another level with more herbs in the rice stuffing, which by itself was simply just sticky.

For our entrees I convinced everyone to go with the Caramelized Black Cod ($19) because I still have fond memories of the claypot fish dishes I had from my trip to Vietnam around this time last year. Bong Su’s version used Alaskan cod that was lightly dressed in the caramel sauce made with molasses and served with garlic and green onion. Everyone enjoyed this dish for its clean taste and the perfectly tender way the fish was prepared.

We also had the Red Lantern Duck ($26), which was Liberty Farm duck breast roasted to medium rare and coated with wine-currant glaze and served with rutabagas and Brussel sprouts. I enjoyed this dish, but I always love duck. I thought the Bong Su preparation was nicely done, but Margaret thought it was more rare for her tastes. (She likes her duck the traditional Chinese way that’s roasted well done.)

We ordered a side dish of Kaffir Long Beans ($8) and steamed rice infused with coconut milk and vanilla ($2). The long beans were on the spicy side cooked in a traditional black bean sauce. We all marveled at the cute presentation of the rice wrapped in bamboo leaf and served in a woven basket. There was a slight hint of coconut, but we weren’t fans of the texture, which was more like rice pilaf than plump rice that holds well together (and would have made it easier to pick up with chopsticks).

It seems like we had a lot for dinner, but we were able to squeeze in a plate of Bong Su’s beignets for dessert. Tonight it was made with a banana filling and served with black sesame ice cream (which looked kind of dark green) and two sauces: vanilla anglaise and chocolate. The beignets were light and fluffy but the banana filling weighed them down. It would have been better with a banana crème filling, which it was not. (It was more like banana fritters.) The ice cream was a bit icy and the chocolate sauce was unusually sour (and not like a bittersweet chocolate-kind of sour).

The service at Bong Su was extremely friendly and attentive. (The bus boys pretty much refilled my water glass after every sip I took.) And the room is beautifully done and made everyone dining there seem like they were all in the beautiful crowd. But the food, while prepared with precision and an attention to details, seem to waffle between traditional Asian flavors and the sweet-sour Asian tastes created to cater to an American palate. I preferred the dishes—like the cod in claypot—that were sophisticated but highlighted authentic Vietnamese flavors than the Asian-infused dishes that bordered on sugary. Bong Su can guarantee you an elegant environment with upscale dishes, but it lacks that extra oomph to truly be considered a gem.

Single guy rating: 3.5 stars (eat like the beautiful people)

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

Bong Su in San Francisco

BTW, thanks to Margaret and Norma for a fun night out. Hopefully I’ll see you when I’m in Honolulu in May!

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