Dinner Report: Bong Su
In a space that formerly housed Max's Opera Café, yards of fine silk in muted shades of cream and green now provide a peaceful, upscale backdrop to the modern Vietnamese cuisine at Bong Su.
While Bong Su, whose name means plumeria, is new-ish, its dishes are not. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the masters at Slanted Door should surely be flattered by the pretenders at Bong Su. Showing little imagination, Bong Su offers standard appetizers like shrimp spring rolls, green papaya salad, and seared day boat scallops, as well as tried and true entrées like curry tamarine prawns and the ubiquitous shaking beef.
The overly loud music prevents diners from enjoying a potentially peaceful atmosphere, while drowning out the friendly servers. The wine list features numerous half bottles, including the standard Riesling and Gewürztraminer offerings that complement Vietnamese food so well.
While Bong Su does not disappoint, neither does it innovate. The originals at Slanted Door have nothing to worry about from this Nguyen-come-lately.
I took a large party there last week, and the music was only loud in the bar. Though the place was full halfway through our meal (we were there from six to ten), we could converse without a problem, certainly not the case at most SF restaurants. But I had decided on the place after posting here for suggestions on a quiet place in the area, and made a point of asking for the quietest seating possible on my OpenTable reservation form, so maybe they just turned the music down for us. (We were right in the center of the main dining area, not off to one side.)
The food, alas, has pretentions. There's nothing wrong with trying to beat Slanted Door at their own game, or seeking a niche below or adjacent, but too many of the dishes just made me think of how much better they would have been at SD (on Valencia -- I've never been to the newer location). The server was a little too eager to start spouting off in a self-congratulatory manner, and there were some good ideas on the menu, but too much of what arrived was one-dimensional. Portions were small (and they didn't suggest doubling up on anything except the duck mustard wraps, which came fully assembled and would not have been easy to share) and the food arrived in dribs and drabs (my daughter said she felt hungry all the way through and left hungry). The wine list was short on what I would consider reasonable choices; as with the food menu, things appeared to cost about half again as much as they should.
All in all, this place fulfilled my need for a quiet meeting place with decent food on a Sunday night, but I won't be going back. If you want to impress someone who is inexperienced and not overly critical, this might fit the bill. There are better options if the quality of the food is paramount. --PR
311 3rd St, San Francisco, CA 94107
Salt and pepper calamari -- bit greasy (fryer temperature was too low), but a nice texture, not chewy or rubbery. The "cilantro emulsion" was thin cilantro pesto, not worth further deterioration of the surface of the calamari.
Duck mustard wraps -- I liked the taste of these, though the dipping sauce was just sweet, and how are you supposed to share dipping sauce without sharing bacteria? No spoon was provided. I dipped the two ends and ate the middle without, which was better.
Shrimp cupcakes -- rather dull rice-flour sopes with one chunk of shrimp in each. These were a waste.
Papaya salad -- the slivers of dried beef on top were an interesting touch, but the rest of it was just a standard restaurant papaya salad, a bit too sweet and with not enough heat nor fish-sauce flavour nor other complexity.
Seared scallops with glass noodles -- the scallops, like all the seafood, were cooked quite nicely (not under- or over-done), but there were only three of them, and they were not large. The glass noodles were a standard sort of stir-fry with tree ears and eggs, nothing remarkable, again a bit too sweet for my taste.
Bun cha -- I liked the deconstructed look of this dish, the pork being served in a little ceramic dish with a mild nuoc cham. That part of it was good. The other parts -- well, herbs, plain rice noodles, lettuce leaves.
Lemongrass bass -- A good-sized chunk of fish, again cooked perfectly. This was the best of the mains. The accompanying mango noodle salad was, again, sweet and not particularly interesting.
Caramelized black cod -- I have had this dish at several places and have made it myself. In this version, sweet predominated, and the sauce was watery, not syrupy.
There was a chicken dish ordered for a picky eater that I didn't try, and I didn't try the passionfruit duck because there weren't enough slices for the table and I'm not crazy about seared duck breast anyway. I also didn't try the trio of sorbets with accompanying salts. I've done the different salts thing with fish, but to do it with sorbet seemed odd to me. The chocolate trio was a cute presentation, but the mousse pop was just ordinary mousse, and the little glass of fizzy chocolate malt stuff was just silly. I don't remember what the third chocolate bit was; I didn't try that. --PR
My fiance and I went two weeks ago and while not blown away, we still left satisfied overall. Portions were not big, but they were larger than we expected for this type of restaurant. Personally we feel the flavors at Bong Su (and its sister restaurant Tamarine) taste more Vietnamese than at Slanted Door, which always seem a bit more Chinese-inflected to us. We don't remember hearing any music whatsoever during our dinner, but maybe it was too muted for us to notice.
A writeup with a few photos are on my blog:
I, too, liked the food. We had the cod and pork for entrees, they were both excellent, very flavorful & succulent. Kampachi appetizer was great, but didn't fancy the duck mustard wraps. I enjoyed my glasses of Malbec and Riesling. Music wasn't loud at all.
I like the ambiance here more than Slanted Door. It's more intimate and spacious.