Feasting At Lily on Clement
Spend any time with Chef Rob Lam and it won’t be long before you’re howling with so much laughter that your insides hurt.
He has an outrageous sense of humor, along with a mischievous air about him that my late-mom would have surely described as “looking like he’s up to no good.”
On the contrary, what he’s up to is actually all good at Lily on Clement in San Francisco, where he’s turning out boldly flavored, contemporary Vietnamese dishes.
A couple weeks ago, my husband and I took my aunt to lunch here. While I picked up the tab, Lam added a few dishes on the house that he wanted us to try. Good thing my Chinese American auntie has a hearty appetite!
Lam, who also owns Perle Wine Bar in Oakland, opened Lily on Clement during the pandemic, and thankfully, managed to survive. In addition to dinner six nights a week, the restaurant also offers brunch or lunch, Friday through Sunday, which encompasses a la carte options, as well as a $32 two-course prix fixe that includes a specialty beverage, too.
On a typically tepid San Francisco day, we ordered a pot of Vietnamese jasmine-chrysanthemum tea ($10) to warm up with, which came with tiny, crunchy cookies flavored with coconut and durian for a fun touch.
The bi-cultural street food snack known as Vietnamese pizza is transported here in a beautiful rendition strewn with colorful blooms ($22). The foundation is thin, cracker-crisp banana rice paper that gets topped with jackfruit, Vietnamese pesto, shallot aioli made with Maggi, and spicy sambal. Scissors come with to cut it into manageable pieces.
Think of it almost as a fruit tostada with the subtly sweet mango-banana-like taste of the jackfruit married with herbs, umami, and a tickle of heat.
The shaking beef salad ($28) is easily enough for two to share. It’s an enormous bowl of Little Gem lettuce leaves from Fifth Crow Farm, peppery watercress from Sausalito Springs, avocado from Brokaw Farms, cherry tomatoes, crunchy shrimp crackers, and an oozy poached egg at the center. In a separate smaller bowl are the tender, juicy, and peppery slices of shaking beef. Break the yolk, mix it into the salad to form a kind of added dressing, then enjoy the raw, crisp leaves with the contrast of the warm, cooked beef.
Next, perhaps my favorite dish of the meal: pea leaf porridge ($18). Asian congee or jook can be so deceptive, much like chicken soup. Both may not necessarily look sexy, but wow, do they deliver in impact when done right.
This version is the lovely shade of jade, tinged by a pesto made with cilantro, mint, and pea leaves. It comes garnished with shiitake and wood ear mushrooms, fried shallots and garlic, and even the requisite slices of fried Chinese donut. There’s also shaved summer truffles overtop to gussy everything up. This eclectic porridge is both a little gourmet and a whole lot homey all at once.
During the pandemic when Lily’s offered mostly takeout, Lam offered a variety of imaginative porridges like this. But for some reason, they never proved popular, which is a crying shame because this pea leaf version is like the edible hug you never knew you needed.
One of my favorite Vietnamese dishes is turmeric fried catfish, and this version doesn’t disappoint. The generous portion of deeply golden battered fish ($22) is arranged over rice noodles with large shrimp chips, and fresh dill fronds. Spoon on some of the accompanying fermented shrimp and pineapple sauce that really brings out the earthy, peppery taste of the turmeric.
Imagine the marriage of a French dip sandwich and beef pho, and you have the roast beef pho French dip banh mi ($28). Lam says he came up with this one year after tuning into the famous Nathan’s Hot Dog Contest, where contestants often dip the buns into water to eat.
This, of course, is way tastier than that, loaded with thinly sliced, five-spice roasted beef, pate, Vietnamese pickled cucumbers, peppers, herbs, and shallot aioli. Thankfully, he divided the regular portion into thirds for each of us to try. The sandwich comes with a small warm bowl of pho au jus that’s fragrant and meaty tasting.
With so much meat in the sandwich, you have to squish it down a little in order to dip it successfully into the au jus. Once you do, the slightly sweet, cinnamon and star anise-scented meat gets even more succulent.
For dessert, there’s warm and wonderful Vietnamese mung bean pudding, studded with banana, coconut, and K&J Orchards peaches.
For an over-the-top finish, there’s Lam’s “Kitchen Sink” dessert, an Everest of rainbow-colored, sprinkle-strewn shave ice, hiding ice cream, pudding, and chunks of Crenshaw melon, lychees, and peaches. It even lands on the table with sparklers ablaze.
Rob Lam wouldn’t have it any other way.