Chef Khai Duong made a name for himself with his popular Ana Mandara restaurant in San Francisco’s Ghiradelli Square, which closed after a 12-year run in 2012.
Now Chef Khai has returned in a smaller, more intimate space in SOMA on the edge of the Design District (on the same block as Omakase), showcasing his refined French cooking skills through his interpretations of Vietnamese dishes at the new Khai restaurant. I was invited as a guest last week to check out the tasting menu.
Opened about three months ago, Chef Khai has decided to focus on the smaller space (looks like about two dozen seats in the former cafe space) with only two seatings per night for a $95 10-course tasting menu. I’m a big fan of Vietnamese cuisine, so I was excited to see how Khai can elevate these dishes, just like how others in town have elevated Chinese, Thai, and Korean food.
Chef Khai starts off with a seaweed salad, which he explains is a dish his mother used to make for him growing up in Vietnam. Through the night, the chef explained his menu and how they all connect with either childhood favorites or popular street food in his home country of Vietnam (where he also happens to serve as an Iron Chef in the Vietnamese run of that international food competition series).
Every dish puts a slightly different spin to Vietnamese classic, such as the matsutake mushroom pate that’s served up with rice chips that are creatively presented in a white coral object. My friend Vera, who dined with me, liked the flavor but found the fancy serving knife too slick to easily pick up the pate. These were some of the minor inconveniences of the presentation that sometimes interferes with enjoying the dishes.
But we did enjoy many of the dishes to come, such as an unusual wild salmon ceviche that was more an aromatic noodle salad with bits of salmon mixed with green apple slices, pork belly bits, and slivers of an egg crepe all dressed with a tomato-banana sauce that gave the dish a sweet perfume. It was served with a hot tomato broth on the side.
Our favorite dish was the next course of Smoked Beef Tartare. I’m generally not a fan of raw meat, but Chef Khai’s version is mostly cooked because of it being smoked, and it’s a lovely combination of flavors from the plantain, onion, coriander and tamarind. A fresh slice of calamansi adds that extra hit of sweet acid to help cut into the richness.
What I appreciated about every dish was the expert hand of Chef Khai, demonstrated in courses such as a silky butter fish flavored with fresh galangal and tumeric. I’ve generally had butter fish that’s been overcooked so it always seem like such a simple fish that’s easily dried out, but here it’s silky and buttery, living up to its name. A pan seared lamb is everything you expect from cooked meat, which means a crispy edge with hits of salt biting into tender and juicy interiors. I even didn’t mind the base of eggplant.
Not every dish is a success. An early starter of a crab sausage had a tough casing, and Vera found the crispy quail on the salty side (I didn’t find it as salty, but maybe that’s because I scraped off the deep-fried skin).
The meal ends with a coconut roll filled with durian, which represents the flavors of Southeast Asia well. For an American audience, however, I think there might be an urge for more recognizable desserts. After eating the roll, I was craving for some kind of palate cleanser (a calamansi sorbet would have hit the spot).
The last bite
Khai Vietnamese Nouveau is not as grand as Ana Mandara, and that’s exactly what Chef Khai hopes for. This intimate spot allows him to use ingredients brought back from Vietnam and blended with local California products to create refined dishes that capture the flavors of Vietnam while opening one’s eyes to the possibilities of what Vietnamese cuisine could be.
Because I was a guest, I’m not giving my typical review rating. However, at $95 this tasting menu is a bargain for a town where most tasting menu is over $100 and often approaches the $200 mark. This is a place I’d go if I want to have a special dinner with my favorite flavors of Vietnam.
Thanks to Chef Khai for a delightful dinner!
The deets: Khai Vietnamese Nouveau, 655 Townsend St. (between 7th and 8th Streets), San Francisco. PH: 415.724.2325. Open Tuesday through Saturday with two seatings at 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. Reservations recommended. Major credit cards accepted. www.chefkhai.com
BONUS: Check out my short little video of the tasting menu at Khai below.
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