Tuesday, March 10, 2015

If you can't make it to San Francisco . . . .

If you can't make it to San Francisco for a wonderful meal, Charles Phan’s The Slanted Door is the next best thing, a beautiful book, both in appearance and content, that is much more than just a cookbook. In addition to a wonderful collection of recipes from Phan’s renowned eponymous San Francisco restaurant, every one of them represented in gorgeous, elegantly simple, full-page photographs, this book is a memoir that makes you wish Charles Phan was your neighbor, not only for the amazing food he would serve if he invited you to dinner, but because success has not spoiled him. He remembers where he came from and all the people who were part of his journey, and his honesty, humility, and gratitude are refreshing and, I believe, sincere.
The current Slanted Door, a large, elegant restaurant in San Francisco’s Ferry Building, is actually the third to bear that name. Phan’s first Slanted Door opened in much humbler quarters at 584 Valencia Street in 1995, where, in addition to fresh and innovative cuisine created entirely from scratch, he used his background in architecture and ceramics to create a dining experience unlike that in any other Vietnamese restaurant. Even in those early days, he was committed to seasonal and locally sourced foods, and he made wine and fine teas part of the whole at the Slanted Door. Word spread quickly, and after a couple of years at an interim location, Phan moved the Slanted Door to its current location, but his commitment to quality, innovation, and elegant simplicity remains unchanged.
The history of the restaurant is intimately intertwined with Phan’s personal history, beginning in 1975 when South Vietnam fell to North Vietnamese forces and Phan’s family fled their country with hundreds of thousands of other refugees. By 1977, Phan was fifteen and he and his family were living in San Francisco, where he attended high school and worked at various menial jobs. He learned from every experience and brought all he had learned, together with a commitment to honest, ethnic food made with the best and freshest ingredients, into play when he opened his first restaurant. Consequently, it is only right that history, culture, and food are intertwined throughout The Slanted Door. You may begin by leafing through it in search of recipes, or to salivate over the pictures, but most readers will find themselves drawn into Phan’s narrative, seasoned as it is with anecdotes, appreciation, and his own warm persona.
One of the many nice things about the book is that it’s not all in Phan’s voice, enjoyable as that voice is. The Slanted Door is famous for its cocktails, and the “Cocktails” section of the book is written by Erik Adkins, the restaurant’s bar director, while Chaylee Priete, its wine director, authors the section on “Wine.” The Slanted Door’s innovative design and its history are related by Olle Lundberg, the architect Phan worked with to create it. Phan obviously believes in giving people credit for what they do well, and in sharing responsibility and encouraging creativity among his staff. I think he would be a wonderful boss.
But The Slanted Door is, in fact, a cookbook, and what a cookbook it is, with recipes divided into sections on starters, cocktails, raw bar, salads, soups, mains, and desserts, as well as an end section devoted to “Basics” such as a simple but distinctly Asian chicken stock, flavored soy sauce, peanut sauce, the pickled radishes and pickled carrots found in Vietnamese banh mi, and a caramel sauce composed simply of palm sugar and fish sauce that is essential to Phan’s recipe for Caramelized Chicken Claypot, one of many recipes I plan to try.

This may be elegant restaurant food, but it’s also simple home cooking, and most of the recipes and their ingredients will be accessible to readers who have a well-stocked supermarket or ethnic market reasonably close by. The shrimp and long beans are easy and delicious, though I used regular green beans (Phan says that’s okay), and at this time of year – strawberry season – his strawberry sorbet is the perfect simple, fresh dessert. From the vegetarian crepes to the spicy squid salad with Chinese (or regular) celery to steamed halibut with ginger lime broth to the Slanted Door’s signature shaking beef, I can hardly wait to cook my way through this big, beautiful, warm-hearted, wonderful book.

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