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‘Iron Chef Vietnam’ Star Judge Returns to S.F. with a Knockout Tasting Menu

It’s a homecoming for Khai Duong, who was also the talent behind the defunct Ana Mandara in Ghirardelli Square. 

Crab sausage, pickled watermelon radish, and Kaffir-lime-and-jalapeño sauce.

 

Fans of Iron Chef Vietnam (and I know you’re out there) will recognize Khai Duong as the hard-to-please head judge of that reality TV show. Here in San Francisco, he is better known as the chef behind Ana Mandara, the modern Vietnamese restaurant whose lavish footprint once took up a large swath of Ghirardelli Square.

Though Duong’s cooking bucked convention—picture crispy whole red snapper with chili sauce, French beans, and peaches—it was tough to shake off the touristy constraints of the location. With its lush tropical decor of up-lit palms and fountains, Ana Mandara cut the profile of the Slanted Door’s more opulent but less cool cousin. It probably didn’t help that Don Johnson, an investor, was a frequent presence, spoiling the Mekong Delta mood with cheesy reminders of Miami Vice.

That Ana Mandara sustained a respected 12-year run is a testament to Duong’s talents, which turned out to be transferable. When the restaurant closed in 2012, the chef returned to his childhood home in Vietnam, where he came to unexpected on-air fame.

Khai Duong doubles as a waiter for parts of the 10-course prix fixe meal at his restaurant.

Now comes the latest twist in Duong’s career, which finds him back in San Francisco, once more pushing the boundaries of Vietnamese traditions but doing so in a very different setting. His new venture, Khai, fills a small shared space near the Design Center, where Duong runs what amounts to a stripped-down, prix fixe pop-up—an endearingly offbeat restaurant that’s shorn of all formality and refinement except for what appears on the plate. Walk by Khai during the day, and it isn’t Khai. It’s Bonjour Patisserie, a counter-service soup-and-sandwich spot run by someone else. But as dinner hour approaches, Duong draws a black curtain across the room, blocking off the deli cases from a single row of tables. Voilà! A dining room.

Along with a soundtrack of modern jazz, that’s about all you get in the way of atmosphere. As compensation, you also receive 10 lightly traipsing courses; Khai’s tasting menu is the rare degustation that leaves you sated but not overstuffed. The first dish is a salad of white seaweed with jicama, sliced grapes, cherry tomatoes, peanuts, and mint, bathed in a white-wine-vinegar-and-fish-sauce vinaigrette and served under a bell jar like a spindly-legged alien specimen: You remove the glass top to access the crunchy tangle. It tastes bright and refreshing, but its most striking feature is its snap-pop texture, along with the porcelain shade of the seaweed itself, which grows deep underwater off the coast of Vietnam, deprived of chlorophyll.

As pure white as the seaweed is the chunk of coral that shows up next. It isn’t edible. But the rice chips wedged into its nooks and crannies are. Two small ramekins round out the presentation, one filled with honey, the other with matsutake mushroom pâté. You spread the pâté on a chip, then drizzle it with honey, a sweet and earthy combo that Duong sees as a pairing of his present with his past. Rice chips were his favorite childhood snack, while the pâté was inspired by a recent West Coast mushroom hunt with a friend.

I learned as much from the chef one evening when he emerged from behind the curtain to whisk away the coral. Among his other duties, Duong doubles as a waiter, often delaying the delivery of a dish to relay a story about how it came to be. As a server, he’s unfiltered and not fully polished, which is only a problem if you don’t accept his off-the-cuff forthrightness as part of the restaurant’s quirky charm.

The real finesse at Khai lies in its kitchen, which keeps the good stuff coming in the form of a crab sausage, set on a coin of pickled watermelon radish and ringed by iridescent green dots of Kaffir-lime-and-jalapeño sauce. Though the sausage is rubbery, its flavors, set aflame by citrus and chili, are complex and compelling. It’s like chewing on a tire and discovering you like it.

Duong says he plans to change his menu slowly with the seasons. But a number of his dishes would play well at almost any time of year. On a soft nest of rice noodles, the chef lays out raw salmon, roast pork belly, julienned green apples, fried egg, and toasted peanuts, which you toss to your liking with spicy banana sauce. A cup of prawn-and-tomato soup arrives on the side, and the chef suggests—well, more like orders—that you toggle as you eat, alternating bites of the noodle medley with slurps of the sweet and tangy soup. It’s delicious that way. Rebel that I am, though, I wound up straying from the recommended pattern and never felt like I was missing out.

The beef tartare that follows also comes with instructions: Enjoy the meat, which is enlivened by sharp notes of tamarind and pepper, then cleanse your palate by sucking on a kumquat.

Good idea. You’re now primed for the finest course of all: flaky, pan-fried butterfish with dill and scallions, finished in a feisty turmeric-tinted sauce of galangal and garlic. Served with warm rice noodles, this is Duong’s rendition of a classic Hanoi dish called cha ca la Vong. I know this sounds pretentious, but I’ve had it several times in the Vietnamese capital, and I liked it better here. 

What I can’t speak fondly of is Khai’s wine-pairing option, which consists of stingy pours of four different wines, two reds and two whites, each of which gets repeated in order to cover every course. At a restaurant striving for sophistication, the effect of such redundancy is almost comically cut-rate, all the more so when you get to the final savory dish—rack of lamb with roasted eggplant slicked in scallion oil—and a waiter tells you, “OK, here is more of the same syrah.”

Mercifully, the wine charade is over by the time dessert arrives, bringing the evening to a delightful close. Duong’s offering here is a pliant, crepe-like coconut wrapper rolled around a filling of durian paste, then covered in raspberry sauce. A scattering of toasted peanuts and almonds provides the coup de grâce. As the chef tells it, it took him three years to perfect this triumph of just-so sweetness and contrapuntal textures, which is also what I hear it takes to get through law school.

That sort of pace would never wash in a cooking competition. But there are worse—and far less rewarding—ways to spend one’s time.


The Ticket: A recommended dinner for two at Khai

Prix fixe per person.................................................$95
Seaweed salad; wild matsutake mushroom pâté; crab sausage; salmon ceviche with pork belly, rice noodle, egg, green apple, and banana sauce; smoked beef tartare; baked butterfish; fried quail with mashed potatoes, yucca, and salted egg yolk; rack of lamb with eggplant; coconut rolls
Wine flight.............................................................$50
Total......................................................................$145

Khai
655 Townsend St. (Near 8th St.), 415-724-2325
2.5 stars

 

 

Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco

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