You might think, with today’s endless parade of television cooking shows, that the dining public’s appetite for a theatrical restaurant experience might be whetted. But mostly this does not seem to be the case. Oh, we have plenty of display kitchens, and soufflés finished tableside, and occasionally you might happen upon on a cheese cart, or a foie gras or champagne cart. Yet the typical restaurant experience is notably slim on any actual culinary drama, unless something goes dreadfully wrong: a steak burned, a chicken paillard undercooked, a tray of dirty dishes dropped.
Then there might be a scene, with some lively dialogue. But this doesn’t happen often. The usual course of events is that food is ordered and, later, brought, ready to eat. If your restaurant has a display kitchen, you might have caught a glimpse of line cooks doing something or other, but the likelihood is that you wouldn’t be able to figure out what they were up to, and almost certainly you would have no way of knowing whose plate they were working on.
Imagine my delight, then, when the chicken volcano ($19) at Grand Pu Bah, an 18-month-old Thai restaurant near the Concourse Exhibition Center at Eighth and Brannan streets, turned out to be almost as exciting as a high school science experiment. The roasted bird arrived, still mounted on its upright roaster. The server, after muttering a few cautionary words (or perhaps a prayer), emptied a small tumbler of some kind of liquor over the chicken (actually a game hen) — I thought I heard “151” and “tequila” — lit a match, and set my dinner gloriously ablaze. He did not say Opa!, as the Greeks do when lighting saganaki cheese on fire, but the omission did not matter, because the hen burned a beautiful, steady, Bunsen-burner blue for seconds that might have stretched into a minute.
When the flame finally died out, the bird had a crisp-crinkly golden skin as impressive as that of any roast chicken in town. Even if the dish had been bad, I would have said nothing, having enjoyed the show (and discreetly warmed my hands). But the meat was tender and moist, the accompanying roasted cauliflower florets and potato quarters tasty (despite not being torched), and the ramekins of mysterious dipping sauces (one red, the other neatly divided between red and green by a bisecting diagonal, like a flag) welcome. Even good chicken benefits from a bit of extra help. My only complaint: the hen was awkward to eat. The server, having kindled his blue blaze and departed, did not return to lift the finished item from its perch. Since I couldn’t see a graceful way to do it, I just hacked away as discreetly as possible while thinking there must be a more elegant way.
Elegance, interestingly, otherwise pervades Grand Pu Bah. Despite the silly name, the restaurant is surely among the most stylish Thai places in the city and is, really, stylish by any standard. The space, which spreads away from the entrance like a baseball diamond folding out from home plate, includes a handsomely backlit bar, walls textured with what appear to be wood cuttings and offset bricks, and paper lamps that hang from the ceiling like giant porcini stems being air-cured for some kind of mushroom prosciutto. The overall flavor of the design suggests a contemporary California restaurant, and indeed executive chef Teerapong Khantawisut’s menu emphasizes “local and seasonal ingredients.” At some point will this be required by law?
The menu offers “Thai beach cuisine” in the “family style” — sharing is encouraged — and includes a raw bar (with oysters and sashimi), a conventional array of appetizers, soups, salads, and main courses, and a large collection of shareable plates grouped under the rubric “street food.” Why the chicken volcano should have been slotted in here isn’t obvious; it’s hardly street food and not all that shareable.
Some of the other offerings here spread themselves around the table much more easily: sizzling spicy beef pad cha ($18), for instance, strips of flank steak tossed with slivers of bell pepper and fresh chile and cubes of Thai eggplant and electrified by kaffir lime leaf and wild ginger. For a slightly sweeter tack, there’s roasted duck in a broad-shouldered but well-behaved coconut-red curry sauce fructified by pineapple chunks, lychee nuts, grapes, and tomato quarters. (Tomato is a fruit, don’t forget!)
And, of course, appetizers and salads are shareable, even if they’re not marked that way. Sizzling spicy prawns ($10) were indeed sizzling — they arrived, like fajitas, on a hot cast-iron platter — and were souped up with chiles, cilantro, lemongrass, and lime. I liked the chunked taro root added as ballast to fresh rolls ($8), otherwise filled with a traditional jumble of tofu, basil, cilantro, and cucumber; the root meat was both creamy and weighty. A similarly moderating influence would have benefited the seafood salad ($14), which was a kind of southeast Asian caesar salad — romaine hearts tossed with prawns, scallops, and calamari — but finished with a spicy lime vinaigrette that was the spiciest vinaigrette I’ve ever had, including my own, and George likes spicy chicken. It isn’t every day you come across a salad that’s almost too hot to eat. This one had me panting like a dog on a blazing August afternoon.
We laughed, we shared, we panted, we thought the dessert menu was a little perfunctory and was the one dimension in which Grand Pu Bah is more Thai than California. Fried bananas ($8) come with beer ice cream — weird, slightly sharp but acceptable. And yet: never again. The beer is Singha, which is always good and is at its best when icy cold, not as actual ice.
GRAND PU BAH
Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.,
Sat.-Sun., 5-10 p.m
88 Division, SF