311 Third Street
San Francisco, CA 94107
Chef Tammy Huynh
Last tried: June 2006
Expanding on the success of Tamarine, Anne Le and her chef aunt Tammy Huynh have unleashed their talents in creating a second upscale Vietnam restaurant in the Bay Area, this time in San Francisco's South of Market district. The formerly generic space at the bottom of a large apartment complex that used to be Max's Diner on the corner of Third and Folsom has been converted to a lush, sexy, and cosmopolitan restaurant and lounge, with enormous stone scultures imported from Vietnam, silk and satin fabrics swathed over windows and walls in shades of taupe, caramel, eggplant, and coffee, and large communal tables made of bamboo along the center of the long corridor in the dining room. In the back of the spacious bar area is a vast wine cellar behind glass walls, containing a beige stone buddha sculpture in the center surrounded by rows and rows of bottles bearing impressive labels.
As good as the restaurant looks, the food is even better. While maintaining some of the classic favorites from Tamarine, such as the melt-in-your-mouth-tender shaking beef, the Bong Su menu offers its own line of sophisticated yet hearty Vietnamese dishes from North, Central, and South Vietnam. A substantial number of menu items may also be made vegetarian upon request.
Among the dishes listed as starters ($7-$16), the Goi Kampachi, a sashimi style dish garnished with transparently thin slices of jalapeno peppers and fried shallots in a light drizzle of chili-lime fish sauce, was delicate yet packed with flavor. Despite the kick of spice and the accompaniments, the sweet, creamy flavor of the kampachi shone through, and the fish was as fresh as you would get from a top notch sushi restaurant. The Hue rice rolls, described as stuffed rice flour crepes, were actually more like soft dumplings filled with ground veal and woodear mushrooms. The translucent rice flour shell is chewy, sticky, and mildly sweet like Japanese mochi, and imparts a rich and starchy texture, complementing the richness and earthiness of the slightly salty veal and mushroom mixture inside. Eaten solo, the rice rolls are creamy and luxurious. With the accompanying sweet chili sauce, they become spicy and intense. With the kampachi, General Manager William Redberg paired the 2004 Setzer Gruner Veltliner from Weinvertal, and for the Hue rice rolls, a tart-sweet 2004 riesling from Reingau. Having assembled the expansive yet well-articulated wine list for both Tamarine and Bong Su, Redberg knows the cuisine and the wines inside out, and his quiet expertise makes the sublime dining experience at Bong Su complete. (Sommelier/Maitre d' Peter Greerty, who recently joined Bong Su from the Ritz Carlton Boston, will be conducting Asian wine pairing seminars, but to date I have only tried the pairings by William Redberg.)
The riesling also matched beautifully with the duck wraps-- tender and moist five-spice duck confit with diced mango and cucumber, rolled in bitter mustard greens, flavored with a sweet hoisin type sauce. The honey roasted, five-spice quail stuffed with sweet sticky rice, shiitake mushrooms, and scallions, is also listed among the starters, but is hearty enough to be an entree. In fact, this dish was served after the appetizers and soups on both of my visits. Given the strong spices and the opulence of the quail meat, this sequence made more sense in the overall presentation of the meal. If you can, select all of the dishes you would want to try from the menu, then leave it to the kitchen to course out the meal then ask William Redberg to do a wine pairing. This takes some time, especially with the somewhat inexperienced serving staff, but worth the wait and time. With the quail, Redberg selected a 2003 Rousanne from Carneros. The honey-apricot tones of the wine highlighted the spicing and flavors of the quail exquisitely.
Among the soups/salads/noodles, priced between $11-$16 each, I tried the Ha Long Bay soup, Kobe beef pho, and the crab garlic noodles. The garlicky glass noodles were pleasantly chewy, and the large chunks of crab meat, expertly extracted from the shells and claws, were tender and soft. Beware of the giant pieces of ginger, which are difficult to visually distinguish from the crab meat chunks in the low lighting. For me, this dish was too garlicky, and I could not really taste the crab among the strong garlic, ginger, and peppercorn spicing. The Ha Long Bay soup, on the other hand, was balanced and lovely. The crab asparagus wontons were elastic on the outside, soft and creamy inside, and not the least bit overcooked (unlike most wontons or dumplings in soups), and the broth of lime, coconut milk, chicken stock, and cilantro was delicately spicy and sweet at the same time. I could not think of a single thing that would make this soup better-- until I had it with a sip of the pear sparkling cider, Bordelet Granit, that Redberg suggested. The effervescent sweet pear was an ideal match with the crab, the coconut milk, and spice.
The dish that haunts my memory and makes me yearn to go back to Bong Su is the Kobe beef pho. Owner Anne Le said she has been searching the Bay Area for good pho and decided that the only way she was going to get the kind she remembers from Vietnam is to have her aunt make it. It seems Chef Huynh shares the same obsessive perfectionism and attention to detail as her niece. The clear beef stock infused with cilantro, basil, star anise, cinnamon, and fennel, poured over the mound of fresh, crunchy white bean sprouts and thin slices of jewel-red Kobe beef at the table, creates an intoxicating fragrance that is better than any aromatherapy I've ever experienced. The hot broth wilts the sprouts slightly and cooks the beef slices to a melting tender medium rare, resulting in a soothing and satisfying soup that tastes as incredible as it smells. Redberg then unleashed his magic touch with a 2004 Grenache Rose by Paul Jaboulet. Who knew that a Cote du Rhone rose would match so perfectly with pho?
For entrees ($17-$26), I tried the Alaskan black cod glazed with a sauce of caramelized molasses, garlic, black pepper, and onion, the grilled pork chops marinated in soy and lemongrass accompanied by deep-fried taro cakes, and of course I can never forego an opportunity to have the shaking beef with watercress salad. The cod tasted virtually identical to the miso-glazed black cod ubiquitous in most Asian restaurants, but could hold its own with the best of them (and I have not yet tired of that dish even though it is everywhere.) Although tasty, the pork was rather chewy, like the barbecued pork in Chinese pork fried rice, and the flavor was quite similar as well. I was more intrigued by the deep-fried quenelles of taro that accompanied the pork, which tasted like whipped sweet potatoes surrounded by a crunchy panko crust. Among the side dishes, do not miss the mushroom medley, a mixture of hon shimeji, crimini, and shiitake mushrooms in a five-spice sweet soy-flavored sauce and the Empress Rice, sticky rice flavored with garlic, fried leeks, ginger, and topped with fried quail eggs.
Desserts and service are the two areas where Bong Su could use improvement. The tapioca was mushy and had none of its characteristic chewy pearliness, and the sugary flavor was unbalanced. The star fruit was unripe, hard, and sour. The service, while friendly and well-intentioned, seems like they are still in training. On my first visit, the server had a difficult time remembering the names of the dishes being served, never mind the intricate garnishes and ingredients, and even forgot part of our order. On my next visit, the server, while being very enthusiastic about our request for wine pairing with the food, forgot all about the wine and proceeded to serve the courses. (Fortunately Redberg smoothly rectified the problem by bringing over the pairing for the first course then proceeded to pace and sequence the rest of the courses with the appropriate wines.)
But that Kobe beef pho ...