The Slanted Door
June 22, 2004

Trying out the Imperial Rolls is how I test a Vietnamese restaurant. It's sort of like how I judge an ice cream line by their vanilla. Judging purely by this specimen, I knew this place was going to rock. Of course, I already knew that -- before tonight, I'd been to The Slanted Door twice, and both times I ordered these unparalleled eggrolls.

My virgin meal at The Slanted Door was last month when I met Kauai for dinner. Eschewing the cocktail list, we had a glass of wine at the bar. That was a big mistake, I later realized, when I got around to trying some of their exotic cocktails. However, their wine list is quite amazing, so it's not like we were suffering or anything.

That first night, in addition to the Imperial Rolls for an appetizer, I also sampled the daikon rice cakes with shiitake mushrooms and shallots. Kauai is a fish-eating vegetarian and I'm a ravenous omnivore, who usually has to order lamb, beef, or pork when I go out. However, since Vietnamese restaurants are big on family-style dining and sharing of courses, I had to curb my flesh-tearing tendencies that night. I like dining with vegetarians because it means I have to actually branch out and try new dishes that I might otherwise ignore for the bloodier offerings. To wit: those daikon rice cakes were damn tasty, and I may not ever known that had Kauai not been there to suggest them. The cakes are square and drizzled with ginger-soy sauce. They are crispy on the outside from being pan-seared, but maintain a creamy and delicate interior that acts as a tender sponge for the ginger-soy sauce.

Our two entrees on my first night were caramelized shrimp with garlic, onions, and chili sauce, and vegetarian glass noodles with yellow chives, bean sprouts, and oyster mushrooms. The shrimp was certainly flavorful but also nothing I couldn't get at other Asian restaurants. The glass noodles, while monochromatic and fairly plain, were also very comforting. I think it's because I have this new obsession with noodle dishes -- starting back when Sep introduced me to Zao Noodles on 16th and Market. These noodles are a dish that I could definitely see myself having if I was feeling fluish and unsure of my stomach. That may not sound like high praise, but it really is. In fact, I was craving them when we went tonight, but I thought I should explore the rest of the menu.

The second time I went to The Slanted Door, it was post-cheese lecture. The restaurant hadn't even opened for dinner yet, but my fellow cheesemonger (Big Sky) and I got to hang out with the waitstaff as they had their lunch/dinner before the dinner crowd came in. Big Sky has a major "in" there: she's friends with the manager, who hooked us up with some of their snacks. We were pretty full with cheese already, but we managed to squeeze in some specially concocted "Buffalo" wings with three kinds of special and mysterious sauces. The stuff the waitstaff was eating wasn't even on the menu, because as they get sick of all the same things all the time, the kitchen comes up with new things to tempt them. Since our bosses handed over our excess cheese from the tasting, the waitstaff was quite thrilled to share their lunch/dinner with us. Sated, we made our way to the bar and started on their amazing cocktails.

Phantasm is a magical mixture of "house-infused lemongrass vodka with lime, falernum, served up with a sugared rim." Hello? Lemongrass vodka? Is there any way this drink could fail? Didn't think so.

Ginger Kaffir Limeade is now hands-down my favorite drink. It's Kaffir Lime Vodka, ginger, and lime juice, served on the rocks with a sugared rim. I think it's the exotic vodka infusions that really make these drinks incredible.

Summer on the Danube is Prosecco with elderflower essence. God knows I love my Prosecco, so this was a tantalizing drink, and one which I'm sure I'd order again if I hadn't already pledged my troth to the Ginger Kaffir Limeade.

Because of Big Sky's incomparable connections, delicacies were sent out to us all special-like. We got grilled lemongrass pork over rice noodles with imperial rolls, cucumber and mint. So very, very tasty.

Tonight, as Dr. Mathra and I waited for our "walk-in" table to be ready, we hung out at the cracked-glass bar and expanded our Slanted Door cocktail knowledge by testing the Buddhadrop. This was Hangar One "Buddha's Hand" Citron vodka, limoncello, and lemon juice. It was lovely, but I still needed to have a Ginger Kaffir Limeade to get my fix. As the full dinner menu wasn't available for another thirty-five minutes, we snagged an order of Imperial Rolls from the bar menu to crunch on with our drinks. Unfortunately, they disappeared before I could embarrass Dr. Mathra by snapping a shot of them. We were hungry.

The method used to eat these shrimp, pork, and glass noodle crispy rolls harkens back to the way we ate the Cambodian Rouleaux at Elephant Walk in Cambridge, MA. You select a single leaf of fresh and crunchy -- but not iceberg -- lettuce from the neat pile on the plate and stick in a sprig of mint. Next, you pile in some cold vermicelli noodles and scallions. Finally, you wedge in your section of Imperial Roll, wrap the lettuce tightly around the entire mass, and dip it in the Nuoc nam fish sauce. Unnngh. I could eat those every day, all day, for the rest of my natural born life and well into the after-life and still never get sick of them. I prefer them to any other eggroll-type offering in any other Asian cuisine.

Around five-thirty -- you gotta eat early at this place if you actually want to sit at one of their walk-in tables that has an amazing view of the water -- we got to our table and ordered. At five-thirty, you can actually order the full menu at the bar, so we had already absorbed most of the menu and decided what we wanted. For starters, we had to try their Vietnamese beef carpaccio with rau ram and roasted peanuts.

A few months ago, we had tried our first Vietnamese beef "carpaccio" at Le Cheval in Oakland. It happens to be the first of their Seven Courses of Beef (bo bay mon, a Vietnamese specialty) and it's incredible. The beef is marinated, or "cooked," in lime juice and then covered with fresh cilantro, thin slices of ginger, toasted coconut, peanuts, white onions (fried and raw), and the thinnest slices of lemon. The dish captures the goal of Vietnamese cooking to combine sweet, salty, spice, and sour. I have been dreaming of that dish ever since, so I was psyched to try it at The Slanted Door. I was disappointed in the result. It was tangy, and the beef was clearly of the highest quality the state of California can offer, but not much else struck me. I didn't even get much flavor from the shredded cilantro or peanuts that topped the dish. This version didn't even have the ginger, coconut, white onions, or lemon. Plus, Le Cheval's menu (Sadly, I don't have a copy of it at this time) has the Vietnamese name listed -- none of this "carpaccio" crap, which is clearly only used to appeal to the masses. I will have to go back to Le Cheval to fulfill my raw beef cravings.

Our spirits and faith were completely restored by our two entrees: Meyer Ranch shaking beef and Chicken Claypot. Both of these dishes are supposed to be house specialties.

The menu says that the shaking beef is made with cubed filet mignon with garlic and organic red onions. It's so much more than that. First of all, the organic red onions were caramelized -- which brought a lovely sweetness to the earthy beef -- and they were tossed with fresh peppery watercress. Served on the side was a small ramekin of lime juice, salt, and pepper. You could dip your cubes of beef into this or drizzle it over everything. Meyer Ranch shaking beef definitely captured all the Vietnamese flavors -- salty, sweet, sour, and spice.

"Next to the shaking beef," Dr. Mathra said, "The Chicken Claypot is almost dessert!" He was not far wrong, because the caramel sauce the chicken stewed in brought a sweetness to the dish that might have been cloying had it not been balanced by the ginger and red chilis also present. The chunks of chicken were juicy, tender, and succulent, and they managed to stay that way as they waited for us to finish up the beef dish. The residual sauce was way too delicious to leave pooled in the bottom of the glazed ceramic claypot. Luckily, we had plenty of jasmine rice on hand to sop up the juices, thus sparing our fellow diners the sight of us scrabbling the sauce up with our fingers.

Sum up: Will definitely go back for Imperial Rolls, the cocktails, and to try many more main courses like the tamarind lamb or ginger-soy-shallot pork. However, when I want raw beef, I will take the BART.

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