Observations on Food in the Bay Area
website - located on a wacky little back alley named Cosmo Place, near Taylor and Post in San Francisco, this is the Bay Area's instance of the French Colonial Vietnamese restaurant chain. Sporting some evocative atmosphere with patchwork tile floors, rattan, and shuttered windows, there's even a patio for that after-dinner cigar, as well as a nice upstairs lounge where drinkers can select from most of the appetizers offered in the restaurant.
First a brief note on service. While our server for the evening was truly exceptional (more on this later), when he first came out, he suggested the appetizer Tasting Platter, and recommended the lamb chops, the most expensive item on the menu. Upon his return, when we'd decided that ordering a number of specific appetizers seemed like a better option, he commented that we'd figured out that the Tasting Platter isn't a very good deal. This makes one wonder if the restaurant encourages its staff to recommend the more expensive menu items. If this is the case, it's very disappointing, and given the quality of the food, I can't see that they'd need it. Other than that beginning, however, service was prompt, friendly, knowledgeable, and very helpful. When he misjudged the wine pouring and only had a splash left over for me beyond the initial taste, he later brought out a complimentary glass of their sauvignon blanc (which was suprisingly oaky, yet still tasty). This was very classy and quite unexpected. He was also very helpful in assisting my friend in avoiding menu items that contain gluten.
That said, on to dinner!
Being based around a tropical locale, their drink menu specializes in somewhat fru-fru tropical drinks, and with good reason. The mojitos are especially good. Because of this, we mostly stuck with coctails, but we did order one bottle of German Trimbach Riesling, which while much lighter than I'd expected was dry, crisp, and lightly fruity, and made a good accompaniment to our salads and spring rolls. The rest of the wine list is of reasonable size, and organized well towards the lighter Vietnamese fare they serve.
Goi Cuon - steamed rice paper rolls filled with poached prawns, rice noodles, bean sprouts, mint & cilantro; peanut dipping sauce. Classic, light spring roll character, and everyone loves good peanut sauce.
Cha Gio Vit - crispy rolls filled with shredded duck, malanga root, carrots & scallions; ginger dipping sauce. Fantastic! I could eat these all night. Very rich duck, and everything else worked together with it in interesting contrast of flavors and textures.
Xa Lach Xon - tomato salad with watercress, mizuna, jicama, roasted shallots; light sesame vinaigrette. A nice light salad, with a great contrast of textures between the crispy jicama, and the soft tomatoes.
Xa Lack Buoi - baby field greens, grapefruit, toasted coconut, cashews; mint vinaigrette. Another clean, basic salad, with the grapefruit and coconut providing the interesting flavor and texture contrast.
Banh Hap So Diep - pot stickers filled with scallops, ginger & herbs; sesame-citrus sauce. Very good. Lots of flavor and a great sauce, and the pastry was the perfect thinness to contain all the food goodness without overpowering with its own flavors.
Unfortunately, I wasn't able to sample everything at the table, but I'll report on those I did get a few bites of.
Ca Ri Tom - coconut curry, black tiger prawns, mangos, eggplant, Asian basil. I've always been an addict of the coconut based Thai curries, and this fared little different. Wonderful flavor, and the prawns were large and fresh. Doesn't come with rice, though, so you have to order that extra.
Bo Luc Lac - cubes of beef tenderloin marinated in garlic, soy and crushed peppercons, with watercress, tomatoes, crispy mini potato chips. Very rich! The sauce is thick and has intense flavor, and the beef is perfectly tender, and wow is there a lot of it. I think this was the largest dish on the table. The watercress and cherry tomatoes make a nice contrast with the hearty beef chunks, and the wee crispy potatoes add a unique texture to everything else.
Ca Ngu - sesame crusted Ahi tuna steak, lemongrass rice, oven-dried tomatoes, Asian basil. Very smooth, and perfectly seared, but I was mildly disappointed that the tuna flavor was rather lost; the fish was fairly bland (though that might have merely been relative to my tenderloin). There's not much of it either, so hopefully you aren't too hungry!
Cuu Nuong - grilled lamb chops, sweet baby carrots, carmelized onion sauce, mint and apple salad. Perfectly cooked to the point that they melt in the mouth, the lamb was wonderful (though rather fatty), and everyone loves sweet baby carrots. The sauce was quite good, but very, very strong, and tended to overpower the lamb unless used very sparingly.
Coconut Sticky Rice - cooked in banana leaves, with caramelized bananas and a banana anglaise. Dee-lish! Very light, and sweet, sticky, banana-y goodness.
Five Spice Beignets with Chocolate Fondue - also with seasonal fruit, and caramel fondue as well. The chocolate was worth killing for - dark, rich, and barely sweet; the essence of dark, dark chocolate, and wonderful on everything. The beignets were tasty (and there were many of them), but there was hardly any noticeable spice, which was disappointing as I was curious what 'five spice' tastes like. They made a good vehicle for the chocolate, though.
OK, so I wouldn't usually dedicate an entire section to booze, but I just have to. They offer a flight of their 3 Plantation Rums for $24, and if there are more than one of you, or you don't have to drive, it is absolutely worth getting. You get 3 glasses with good bar-sized pours of each rum, and oh are they good. My notes from the evening:
Plantation Jamaica 8 yr - light, very caramel with caramelized banana aroma. Very light on the palate, but a bit rough on the finish.
Plantation Trinidad 1991 - hints of smoke in a dark, caramel aroma vaguely reminiscent of Mortlach (a Speyside Scotch). Still a bit rough, but much richer and sweeter than the Jamaica.
Plantation Barbados 1986 - Wow. I need to buy some of this. No smoke, but an intensely dark, sweet caramel aroma that's simply intoxicating (in both meanings). Rich and sweet mouthfilling flavor with a long, smooth, dry finish.
All-in-all, a fantastic meal for a reasonable price (for a San Francisco upper-tier restaurant). Great service, great atmosphere. We'll certainly be back.