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Bong Su report (long, with a few rants and raves)...

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My father and stepmom had invited us to a concert at Yerba Buena Center, and we wanted a spot to meet for dinner before hand, within no more than a two or three blocks of the show. This was as good an opportunity as any to try Bong Su, which I had been curious about.

We arranged to meet at the restaurant, and I made an early reservation, so that we would have plenty of time to catch up before the 8 p.m. show. Hubby and I were the first to arrive, and headed to the bar, where we were the first patrons of the evening. We were greeted by the bartender and brought their specialty drinks and wine list.

Hubby had a martini, I decided to try the Mekong Martini, which has (among other things) lychee infused vodka and black tea tapioca balls. I think I was hoping the black tea would give me a caffeine boost :-). It was mildly sweet, seemed to be fairly low alcohol. Pretty good, but certainly not great. When my stepmom arrived later she tried their signature aperitif with vodka, prosecco, passionfruit, pear nectar: this did have a kick and was very tasty.

Before stepmom and father arrived we had time to check out the wine menu. This is where things got off to a bit of a rocky start service-wise with the bartender… He overheard hubby and I discussing the list: I had said to hubby that I found the organization a bit hard to follow and that the list was expensive: bartender apparently overheard but thought we were talking about whether it was ‘extensive’ (or pretended so, since it IS expensive, he couldn’t argue about that!): anyway, he came over and interrupted our conversation to say something to the effect of, ‘do you think our list isn’t extensive?…well, actually it is quite extensive by San Francisco standards, a very impressive list; lots here you won’t find elsewhere…etc. etc’ I have to say, I don’t like bartenders acknowledging that they have (partially) overheard a conversation we didn’t intend for them…and thought the attitude (or defensiveness) was unnecessary…

So, perhaps because I was annoyed, I answered back that I would like the list better if it had any Syrahs for less than $80 a bottle (I am on a Syrah kick these days, and in any case it is my father’s drink of choice so I knew he would want a glass or bottle when he arrived). Bartender answered, ‘well, you should order a Malbec, it is the same thing of course, just a different name. Malbecs are always cheap’. (um…last time I checked isn’t Malbec a different varietal? Not to mention the fact that the few Malbecs on their list are pretty pricey too!). I decided to refrain from another smart-ass comeback, but frowned, so perhaps to make amends he brought over a fairly generous pour of Dutton-Goldfield 2004 Cherry Ridge Vineyard Syrah, encouraging me to try it on the house. Ok, so they DID have a Syrah for under $80; I just couldn’t find it on the list because the list was organized in a way I found confusing….(It was $56 and was also available by the glass for $14). BTW, I still can’t explain how the list was (theoretically) organized, but it isn’t on-line, so I can’t go back and try and reconstruct… and that all said, we did end up buying two bottles of the Dutton-Goldfield to drink with dinner; it is very nice, so probably a good ploy on the bartender's part.

Ok, that bit of attitude was the ONLY service glitch of the evening. Otherwise, service was truly excellent, and at times wonderful (more on that later). And, the bartender did make amends with the glass of wine, so all was (more or less) forgiven in my book.
With the bartender, that is. To get back to the start of this digression, the wine list *is* quite expensive, which was my major knock on the place. The issue is not markup. Indeed, that bottle of Dutton-Goldfield would be at least $35 at the winery (if it were available; apparently the 2004 is sold out); so markup isn’t even double. However, there are plenty of good Syrahs (not to mention Malbecs :-)) starting in the teens or twenties retail, so would it kill them to put even one on their list?

Even though the Bong Su list was hard to follow, I can say with a high degree of certainty that there were no more than two or three bottles on it under $40 (both in the high thirties), and very few under $50. Actually, the typical range was $60 to $80 and above. My advice: stick to cocktails (at ten dollars, my cocktail was a relative bargain!), or beer, bring your own and pay corkage, or close your eyes when the bill comes. The fact that there are no lower end bottles really is unfortunate and would probably discourage me from dining there, even though I enjoyed the food and loved the ambiance. Sure, they’d make less money on each wine drinker but the relative percentage of profit would be the same..and they’d be more likely to earn my repeat business…and don’t even get me started on the extra 3.5% they are charging on that wine (and the rest of the bill) as a ‘health care tax’….well, ok, more on that below now that I am started….

One other note on my wine list rant: before going, it was my impression based on other reports and reviews that Bong Su was a somewhat less expensive alternative to Slanted Door. I’ve never been to Slanted Door, but actually, if SD's on-line wine list and menu prices are accurate, my impression proved to be incorrect. Bong Su’s food prices are only slightly lower, but Slanted Door’s wine list is much more balanced with less expensive options, including several Rieslings and Gruner Veltliners that would probably pair well with the food and are priced for (gasp!) under $30, and a large number of options under $40. More than anything, my experience at Bong Su leaves me eager to try Slanted Door: if I had to guess based on other’s reports and my experience last night my guess would be that I’d give the edge to Bong Su for service and their relatively serene atmosphere, but perhaps not for food and certainly not for wine .

So, major rants over (almost), on to the rest:

Ambiance: the website makes it seem much more Asian Stylish (for lack of a better description) than it really is (other than the bar area), IMO. One long wall is all windows. Very modern and sleek, lots of contrasting black and white. Nonetheless, even when it filled later in our evening it wasn’t overly noisy, and we could talk easily at our table in the back room. Tables are well-spaced, and overall it is a very comfortable atmosphere. Even the bar stools are comfortable. I’d give the ambiance an A; a big plus.

Food: dishes are served family style and meant to be shared. I had been told that portions were fairly generous, and the server confirmed this, so we ordered conservatively in terms of amounts, particularly since my father is not a big eater. We ended up with two appetizers, three mains, two sides, two orders of rice, and one dessert for four of us, (plus coffee and wine) and it was just about the right amount of food.

Bong Su menu:
http://www.bongsu.com/Bong_Su_Dinner_...

Dishes we ordered were:

Salt and pepper calamari, served with a cilantro dipping sauce: Alas, no tentacles, only steaks, but otherwise this was an excellent version of this dish. It came out piping hot, the salt and pepper crust on the calamari was perfectly balanced, and the cilantro sauce was excellent. Big thumbs up all the way around the table.

Bo Bia: rice paper rolls of steamed lap chang (Vietnamese sausage), carrots, jicama, basil & peanuts. The menu notes that this can be made without sausage for a vegetarian version. Served four rolls to an order with spicy fish sauce for dipping. Another big winner: very fresh and all of the flavors sang. Don’t think I’d like it nearly as much without the sausage, indeed, I wouldn’t have minded a plate just of that sausage to enjoy!

Steamed coriander loup de mere: whole fish steamed with cilantro, kaffir lime leaves, and lemon. The fish was nicely cooked but over-salted.

Carmelized Black Alaskan cod with black pepper, molasses and onion, served hot pot style: the fish was silky and delicious, though I thought the sauce was too heavy on the molasses. I’ve had similar dishes prepared just as well elsewhere for less, but this was hubby’s favorite.

Shaking beef, served with watercress salad: my father’s favorite dish of the evening, a better than average version of this dish. Stepmom and I fought over the delicate, delicious watercress salad.

Char-grilled Japanese eggplant with leeks: flavorful and complex, even though I am not completely convinced that the smoky flavor wasn’t bottle enhanced. The leeks were very thinly chopped and fried and served on the side.

Empress Rice: sticky rice with garlic, ginger and a duck egg, which was served on top, sunny-side up, and then stirred into the dish at the table. A winner….comfort food at its elegant best.

Jasmine rice: fine, two servings (at a dollar each) were more than enough for the table.

Doughnuts and affogato: three just out of the fryer donuts with a DELICIOUS valrohona chocolate sauce for dipping and a shot of Vietnamese press coffee with a tiny scoop of vanilla ice cream…even the non-chocolate lover among us (that would be me) was scooping up the addictive chocolate sauce with a spoon when the donuts were gone…

Service: we wanted a relaxed but not slow meal and the timing was perfect, with attentive and efficient service. Our main server was well-informed, and truly listened to and responded to our questions and needs. Beyond that, he patiently listened with obvious pleasure to my father’s stories to him, which started with an explanation of why Syrah was father’s favorite grape (my father just bottled his first literally home-grown Syrah and is quite proud of that fact)…at one point both step-Mom and I tried to remind my father that the poor guy had other tables to attend to, but he just waived us off, answering, ‘no, I’m fine, everything is covered and I am really enjoying hearing this’. And you know, I believed him (when things really did get busy later on, he was less present, but still engaged). So, big kudos for the server’s ability to add to our dining experience!

Two final notes:

There was at least one large group (at least twenty people) while we were there, and I know Bong Su also has private rooms, and this strikes me as an good upscale venue option for a group, given its close proximity to Moscone Center. The fact that food is served family style would work well with a group, and I would think it would be enjoyed by even those who don’t know or don’t think they like Vietnamese food.

Secondly, as I mentioned above, they do put a 3.5% health care ‘tax’ on the bill, which annoys me but which is probably a topic for a different thread:

http://www.chowhound.com/topics/509535

but I knew about it going in so managed to just ignored it. Unfortunately, we also forgot about it when calculating the tip. Now, don’t get me wrong: our server was good enough that I wouldn’t have wanted to deduct the surcharge from his tip. That said, we tipped 20% on the total that INCLUDED the ‘health care tax’, and a part of me resents that fact.

Besides, it is NOT a tax at all, it is a surcharge, and to call it a ‘Healthcare Tax’, as they did both on the menu and on my itemized bill, implies for tourists and others not in the know that this is a mandatory tax imposed by the city or whoever, and is misleading… For that reason alone, I sort of wish I hadn’t tipped on it, even though I loved the service.

Bottom line: total with tax, healthcare ‘tax’, and generous tip for three cocktails, two bottles of wine, two apps, three mains, two sides, one dessert and two coffees: about $380.

The real bottom line: I enjoyed my dinner at Bong Su very much, and so did hubby, stepmom and Dad. That said, I’d be much more likely to stop into the bar for a drink and a snack of those rice paper rolls or some calamari, or perhaps for dessert, than I’d be in a hurry to return for dinner any time soon. Bong Su was good, but for me it wasn’t almost $100 a person very good.

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  1. trying to add links:

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    Slanted Door
    Ferry Slip, San Francisco, CA 94111

    Bong Su
    311 3rd St, San Francisco, CA 94107

    3 Replies
    1. re: susancinsf

      For some reason, tapioca balls in an alcoholic drink appeals to me. I like those tapioca balls and If I could get them without having to drink most of the sweet dreck they usually come with ...

      I didn't see any other drink from their online menu that had them though. How were the tapioca balls themselves? Maybe they could be persuaded to put them in another cocktail. Any other restaurant have tapioca balls in the cocktails?

      1. re: rworange

        yes, they appealed to me also, definitely the reason I ordered the drink, but actually, they weren't all that: pretty much flavorless actually.....

        1. re: susancinsf

          I still can't figure out how the bartender could say that Malbec and Syrah are the same. One is a Rhone grape and the other a Bordeaux (& others) and don't even taste similar.

          However, I do like Dutton-Goldfield wines, particularly their Pinot Noir.

    2. Susan, would you happen to know how Bong Su stacks up, quality and price-wise, against two others I've seen mentioned as alternatives to SD, The House and Le Colonial? TIA

      2 Replies
      1. re: PolarBear

        Haven't eaten at either the House or Le Colonial. I did look at Le Colonial's online menu, at a quick glance it appears to be a bit more expensive than either Bong Su or SD. The wine list, however, appears to have a few more lower end bottles..but no idea if it is updated:

        http://www.lecolonialsf.com/menus.html

        1. re: PolarBear

          Le Colonial has a "street-food" menu upstairs in the lounge, which is much less expensive than the menu downstairs. I actually prefer the "street-food" as I've had a couple misses on the regular menu.

          I've had two Rieslings at Le Colonial, the second wasn't so great. All the wines by the glass I've had at Bong Su have been good.

          Le Colonial and Slanted Door, while good, are more about the scene. Bong Su is more elegant and relaxing.

        2. "City-mandated health insurance" would be a more accurate label, but it is a mandatory cost imposed by the City and County of SF that competing restaurants with fewer than 20 employees (or in neighboring cities) don't have to pay.

          1. Bong Su has a happy hour deal and all appetizers are half off the regular price. Maybe this would be a better bet in the future if you happen to be in the area. The drinks are full price during their happy hour. The calamari are so good that I had 2 orders last time I went with a friend.