Nouveau Vietnamese Fare at Khai
With the exception of sushi, we’ve become so accustomed to cheap Asian food in heaping quantities, that we fairly balk when we come across an Asian restaurant daring to focus on premium ingredients, handled with precision, and plated with finesse and restraint.
Khai, which opened in December in San Francisco’s Design District, is a modern Vietnamese restaurant that serves only one menu — a 10-course tasting for $95. If your eyes are already rolling back in their sockets at the thought of just how much food you could get for that price at your neighborhood pho joint, you are missing the point. Because at $95, this dinner experience is a relative bargain as far as tasting menus go in the Bay Area.
For a dozen years, Chef Khai Duong oversaw Ana Mandara in San Francisco. After it closed, he traveled around Asia, reconnecting with his roots. He even won a gold medal in the International Beijing Culinary Competition, besting 200 other chefs.
He always knew he wanted to come back to San Francisco, though, to open something unique. At age 58, he did just that.
His namesake restaurant is as intimate and personal as it gets, as I discovered when I was invited in as a guest a few weeks ago. It’s all of 22 seats. There are only two seatings a night, too. And Duong comes out not only to greet each table, but to deliver the courses.
There is a small wine list. Or you can opt for the $50 wine pairing. It’s a bit quirky, though, as it’s four wines, but you may get duplicate pours of the same wine during the course of the dinner.
Dinner begins with seaweed salad served under a glass cloche. It’s a refreshing mix of grapes, tomatoes, jicama, mint, and crunchy white seaweed in a tangy, sweet dressing. As he set it down on the table, Duong explained that “My Mom used to make us eat this salad. It’s good and healthy.” Indeed, it is.
Rice crackers may not be made in house, but imported from Vietnam. They make quite the entrance, arranged on a piece of coral. Alongside is a creamy vegan wild matsutake pate, which you smear on the rice cracker with a drizzle of salted honey. It’s sweet and earthy in much the same way that foie gras with a fruit chutney would be.
A nubbin of crab sausage with pickled kohlbrabi had promise, but unfortunately, tasted a little fishy and had a tough texture.
The next course is two in one. First, a cup of tomato-shrimp consomme set over a warming candle. It’s light in color and texture, but a powerhouse of tomato and seafood flavor. Second, there is salmon ceviche arranged with pork belly, strands of egg crepe, green apple, shiso, and chopped peanuts over a bed of rice noodles. A slightly sweet, slightly spicy tomato dressing is poured over tableside. You mix it all up to enjoy an elevated version of a cold noodle salad.
Creamy smoked beef tartare accented with tamarind and coriander gets a squirt of Japanese kumquat to lighten it.
Black cod is prepared one of my favorite ways — baked with turmeric and dill, giving it an unmistakable golden hue and flavor.
Duong jokes that the next dish is “KFQ” or Khai’s fried quail. It’s crisp and juicy on a bed of mashed casava, and showered with wonderful crisp roasted garlic bits and egg yolk that has been preserved in salt, then grated.
The final savory course is pan-seared rack of lamb atop seared eggplant that’s crisp outside and custardy soft within. You almost wish you had some steamed rice to soak up the spicy lemongrass sauce and scallion oil on the plate.
For a palate cleanser, Duong offers up small cups of hot lemongrass-ginger tea that’s lightly sweetened. It does the job so well that you almost wish every restaurant did this.
The final dish is probably the most memorable, as it should be since Duong says it took him three years to perfect. His signature dish looks like a rolled rice noodle you find on dim sum carts. But it’s actually made from young coconut, which he purees, then mixes with gelatin, before steaming. The texture is similar to a chow fun noodle, but the flavor is all tropical coconut. It’s filled with durian, which is cooked down — and tamed — with Grand Marnier, to a jammy consistency. It all sits in a pool of coconut cream sauce.
It’s a lightly sweet, unique last bite, which encapsulates just how Duong is trying to get diners to see Vietnamese cuisine in a whole different light.