Thursday, January 28, 2010

Tu Lan

Everyone says it's a dive, a dump, resting on its laurels since Julia Child made a favorable comment about it 20 years ago. Whatever else you don't want to hear about a restaurant is what you hear about Tu Lan. But you also hear it has the best Vietnamese food in San Francisco, and Slanted door aside, I believe it; best of all it's cheaper than dirt. This is still my go to restaurant for Vietnamese food, I just have to avoid eye contact with other customers and keep my eyes off the floors. If I concentrate on the food, I'm in heaven, not skid row.

Siracha says Vietnamese food better than any other single ingredient and Rooster brand sits on every table. The food is so delicious, I usually avoid using it on my meal, since I don't want the heat to overpower the cacophony of other flavors, but I do anoint the steamed rice with it, and then drizzle the rice with any leftover sauces that might remain on the table. Imperial rolls are practically a food group for me, along with egg rolls, lumpia, and taquitos, but I digress. The black peppered, spicy pork filling is deep fried in a rice wrapper and then baptized with a rice vinegar, sugar, chili dipping sauce. I cannot imagine a better way of starting a meal at Tu Lan even though I do also love their Spring Rolls.
Even though I often order Chinese chicken salad in restaurants that have it on their menu, I have yet to eat one I like better than the Tu Lan chicken salad. Primarily shredded cabbage and carrots, with cilantro and shredded chicken, it is elegant in its simplicity and so flavorful with its light sweet and sour vinaigrette sprinkled with chopped peanuts. Served with steamed rice it becomes a filling meal.

The same salad, sans the chicken, becomes a perfect partner for caramelized onions and sauteed shrimp in Tu Lan's Shrimp Salad. I've eaten this on so many occasions, it has single handedly been responsible for my inability to get through the entire menu. I want to try everything, but never manage to do that. I'm going to have to try harder the next time I visit.

On occasion I break away from the salads and try other dishes. The pork served two ways was a nice change of pace, served over noodles instead of rice. Of the two, I definitely preferred the BBQ pork that had been marinated, over the stewed and shredded pork that just didn't keep pace in the flavor competition. Pork meatballs, Sweet & Sour Pork on the menu, were good for a change as well, but perhaps because the thick sauce was so very good. It tasted similar to, and could have actually been hoisin sauce with peanuts and carrots mixed in for more texture. The pineapple that accompanies the meatballs added a vibrancy, another sweet and sour element.
Desserts are on a very short list at Tu Lan, but the fried bananas are enough for me. Sweet, crunchy, what more does one need to finish a meal? If you're thinking Thai iced coffee, better think again unless you plan on staying up very late. One cup at 5:30 p.m. had me wired until 3:00 a.m. the next morning.

Tu Lan Menu from MenuPages
8 - 6th St (just south of Market St)
San Francisco CA 94103
(415) 626-0927

Friday, January 15, 2010

Pican in Oakland

What a wonderful way to start a new year of dining experiences. When a friend suggested we get together in the East Bay, her selection of restaurant came as a complete and perhaps a slightly disappointing surprise to me. Soul food is not normally on my priority list because, if truth be known, I really dislike collards and macaroni and cheese and most soul food restaurants I have been to in San Francisco have limited selections of sides. I do however like grits, BBQ and fried chicken, other staples of this genre, so several, predictable selections would work for me. My experience had been limited thus far to small mom & pop operations, but my mind is forever changed about the depth of this classic American cuisine. With Pican, down home cooking just moved uptown. It equals or exceeds what I've eaten in Savannah or Charleston SC.

The room itself is elegant and sophisticated, utilizing deep wood veneers and warm paint tones. Being focused on the food, other details were missed, but the bathroom had faux alligator skin tiles on the floors and the floral arrangement was respectable enough to be at the front desk.

We started with the roasted cauliflower and crab soup that was beautifully decorated with a drizzle of a grassy olive oil. We had mentioned to our waiter that we would like a second spoon, so we could both taste it, and he was considerate enough to split it for us with no extra charge. It was so silky in texture that we could easily have forgotten that crab was in it at all, were it not for the delectable crab taste. This was a starter I could easily order over and over again. Simply delicious. If a restaurant has to serve bread, you could do worse than this moist cornbread, but could you do better? Not in my estimation.

When ordering I decided to go with the fried chicken, since it was still on my mind, but it came with a smoked Gouda macaroni and cheese. I asked if it was possible to switch the macaroni for grits and it was not a problem for this restaurant. They aim to please at Pican. It was a great call, because the grits were better than my Mascarpone polenta recipe. I asked the waiter what they put in them and the answer was, "butter, butter, and butter" However, I am now thinking that the smoked Gouda mac and cheese might be able to change my mind about that dish once and for all. I feel compelled to try it. The fried chicken had a major failing for me. Even though it was soaked in buttermilk and employed a good combination of spices, it had been brined. I won't buy chicken that has been "plumped" with water and I don't like to eat it. Competency at frying can achieve a juicy, tender chicken without adding extra salt by brining. It reminded me of a Butterball turkey with the pop up "timer" and that is an unfavorable comparison.

My dinner partner ordered the pork chop on a bed of Hoppin John mixed with basmati rice, topped with chow chow, a mustard laced ,onion chutney for lack of a better description. It's served with fried pork belly that you can see in the foreground. Succulent and extremely well made, this dish was very well balanced. We both swooned over the Hoppin John and would order it again without hesitation, but who can order the same thing from a restaurant with such accomplished cooking? Eating one's way through the entire menu seems a better choice. The Hoppin John was made with black eyed peas, sausage and rice.

Dessert was another item we split and it was quite good. It was a Coca Cola chocolate cake with a caramel chocolate ganache frosting and if that weren't enough, it was dolloped with whipped cream and came with a Bourbon panna cotta. The panna cotta was thin, so the texture was off, and I didn't exactly taste Bourbon, but it was still good.

I'll be going back to try some of their small plate offerings. The shrimp and grits is calling to me, and wouldn't that be just perfect with a cauliflower and crab soup, with a side of Hoppin John?

2295 Broadway
Oakland CA 94612
(510) 834-1000

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Nob Hill Cafe

Television is fine for entertainment but never depend on it for a restaurant recommendation; friends are a much better source. After expressing disappointment in Nob Hill Cafe, a friend mentioned that she had been to the restaurant and thought she'd go again if she lived in the neighborhood, but would not go out of her way to return. I feel exactly the same. Nob Hill Cafe is probably an exceptional neighborhood restaurant, but what I saw on television set me up for a very different evening. It's an Italian restaurant and pizzeria. I was primed for the restaurant, but got seated in the pizzeria; feeling a bit like a business passenger being seated in the economy section of the airplane, between two overweight passengers. Yes, the seating was so tight that when the waitress unfolded my napkin and handed it to me, I told her it would never fit between me and the table! She promptly refolded it and said perhaps I'd prefer it on the table, this girl was a class act and didn't skip a beat, so the service was exceptional.

Starting off with good San Francisco sourdough bread was the best possible start for my dining companion. Since we were in the pizzeria, it seemed appropriate to actually try their pizza Even though other starters were available none really stood out enough to make the cut. The sausage mushroom pizza was quite good with a nice chewy crust, but the center was soggy. Still, they divided the toppings in half, as we had requested, and they get plus points for that.

How many times do I have to review pasta with Bolognese sauce? The answer is more often than I would prefer to, but Bolognese sauce is a very good item by which to judge a kitchen. This one was meaty and flavorful, not too complex, but not pedestrian. For a meat sauce this was a good one, better than most; for a Bolognese, it was lacking several classic ingredients and no way near as rich tasting as it should be. Admittedly, I have eaten too many great sauces in Bologna to allow any glowing praise for local endeavors, but I hope to find a better version one day in San Francisco. I haven't given up all hope quite yet.

Gnocchi is another dish that helps to determine the competency of an authentic Italian Restaurant. Nob Hill does a really decent job with their handmade version; not gummy and on the lighter rather than the heavier side of the sliding scale. These were good gnocchi and they afforded me the opportunity to try the Bolognese. Freshly grated cheese was another plus for this restaurant. They serve nightly specials and the prices are fair. Maybe I will go back.

1152 Taylor Street (between Sacramento & Clay)
San Francisco CA 94108
Monday - Friday Lunch 11am - 3pm
Saturday & Sunday Brunch 11am - 3pm.
Dinner Nightly from 5pm - 10pm.