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.
When chef-owner Rob Lam closed his Butterfly restaurant on the Embarcadero in 2017 after 15 years, he thought it marked the end of his era in San Francisco.
In fact, his Perle Wine Bar opened to acclaim soon after in Oakland’s Montclair neighborhood. But when family friends, sisters Lucy and Lily Lieu, asked him to take a look at a building they had just purchased on Clement Street in San Francisco, he fell hard for the first-floor restaurant space.
The result is Lily, which opened in October — yes, smack in the middle of the pandemic. It is the first restaurant for the two sisters, as well as Lam’s first one centered solely on Vietnamese cuisine rather than pan-Asian or French-influenced fare as he’s done in the past. Both he and the Lieu sisters, all of whom hail from Vietnam, want to present the true, bold flavors of their native cuisine without watering them down like they find so many other area restaurants are apt to do.
They invited me to come by recently to try some menu items gratis. While Lam has visions of offering both a la carte and a special family-style dinner once life gets back to normal, right now Lily offers only takeout at lunch and dinner.
The French Dip Pho Bo Banh Mi ($17) is a mash-up of a French Dip sandwich and deconstructed pho — and it is most excellent. A crunchy yet yielding roll is packed with thinly sliced, melt-in-your-mouth, five-spice-scented roast beef, house-made pate, a smear of hoisin for sweetness, pickled daikon and carrots for crunch, and shallot mayo for creaminess. A bowl of pho au jus dipping sauce is definitely made for more than just dunking the sandwich in. You’ll want to take a spoon to this to get every last drop of the broth that’s cooked with beef and chicken bones for 12 hours.