Now, I don't pretend to be a restaurant reviewer. I feel to be a responsible reviewer you have to eat at a place a few times and try a variety of dishes. I am a much more casual restaurant eater and I only tend to order items I want. I'll do a lot for my readers at Blog Appetit, but I'm not going to order the fish when I want the steak. Don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't have an opinion. I just don't want my opinions to masquerade as formal restaurant reviews. Oh, and the last few times I ate out I kind of forgot to take photos. Well, with that all out of the way, on to my opinions of my experiences with two San Francisco restaurants -- Cafe Kati and Slanted Door.
I've heard about Cafe Kati for years and never quite seemed to get there. But last weekend we were meeting friends and its location was convenient, a reservation was available and parking was easy (validated free parking for the Japantown garages). I felt comfortable suggesting the place to our friends since it received good write ups in San Francisco Magazine and Patricia Unterman's San Francisco's Food Lover Guide.
The place was like traveling back in time, specifically to the late 80s and early 90s. Lots of food with vertical presentations and lots of Asian fusion flavors. Portion sizes varied from huge to sufficient. The tastes were all big, often playing off Asian sweet-sour notes. The filet mignon J had was served with a wasabi butter he mopped up. R's sea bass was fried whole and made a grand presentation and she raved about the taste. Gary had the oxtails which were tender and juicy but I thought the flavor a bit intense and sweet to eat the whole dish. Gary thought it was more balanced than I did. My duck with duck confit had an Asian inspired sweet-sour sauce that was a bit more on the sweet side, but I enjoyed it immensely. (I guess I should disclose that my all time favorite dish as a kid was roast duck with cherry sauce, so that might have influenced my experience just a wee bit.) The only dish that was a big nothing was the meagerly sized fig salad appetizer.
Chef Kirk Webber often popped into the dining room and would sit and chat with his patrons. He was quite charming, open and helpful. When we ordered the carmelized banana split for dessert and were told the kitchen was out of bananas, he suggested using pears and then jumped up and went back to the kitchen to make the change. Webber has had an almost complete staff turnover, but the service was comfortable, the food was fresh, elaborately presented and most importantly, good, and our overall experience positive.
Now come the caveats. This is not the place for you if you are looking for ingredients to speak for themselves, all the dishes we tried were tied to complex tastes and sauces. Everything was fresh, the fusion flavor combinations worked well, but if your palate doesn't do sweet-sour well, you'll need to order carefully.
Would I eat there again? Yes, but I don't eat out in San Francisco that often, so I probably won't go back anytime soon. There are too many restaurants to try and only so many meals to eat.
Now for my slant on the Slanted Door. This Vietnamese restaurant is currently a darling of the San Francisco Food scene. It is as refined and modern as Cafe Kati is retro. Service was knowledgeable and accommodating. The room looks serene and while the room seemed noisy, there was no problem hearing each other at the dinner table. Some tables have a wonderful view of San Francisco Bay.
Our Slanted Door saga has a bit of a tale to it. We couldn't get reservations so showed up to wait for a "no show." As a two our changes were slim, but we joined forces with another couple who were also waiting for a table and snagged a table for four almost immediately. Talking to our new acquaintances was lots of fun and we found that we had a lot of connections. Six degrees of separation at the Slanted Door.
In its own way, Slanted Door is a bit of a fusion restaurant. The menu featured some dishes I don't identify as "traditional" Vietnamese and certainly applied some flavors and techniques to Western dishes. We weren't that interested in those, we were longing for some quality Vietnamese food with the finesse and freshness of the dishes were ate in Vietnam last year.
The winner was a pork clay pot with young coconut juice, chilies and shallot. The little morsels of pork falling off the bone were delectable and the sauce was deeply satisfying. The caramelized tiger prawns with garlic, onions and chili sauce were also very good with a nice heat and taste. The spicy Chinese water spinach with chilies and ferment bean curd was hot, perfectly cooked and delicious. Gary and I had split the Maine blue crab and grilled eggplant salad as an appetizer. The amount of crab was generous, the ingredients impeccable, but the tastes of the individual items did not come together into a satisfying whole. Our spicy squid had a nice sauce but again, the dish didn't meld for us and the squid was tough.
After all that we were full and had to skip dessert. We will definitely be going back to the Slanted Door, we will just have to plan ahead to get reservations. Or maybe we'll be making some new friends again.