An as-yet unnamed phenomenon involves the transformation of stylish or distinctive restaurant spaces into homier Asian spots. The most conspicuous example I can think of is the restaurant adjoining the Hotel Milano, at Fifth and Mission. At one point, about 15 years ago, it held a Michel Richard venture, Bistro M, and now it’s a Thai joint, with purple neon signage.
A more recent exhibit is the migration, or extension, of the Vietnamese restaurant Sunflower from its longtime haunt at Valencia and 16th streets to the old Baraka space on Potrero Hill. For years, Sunflower has been a perfectly decent, modestly priced, rather ordinary-looking restaurant in a stratified and hypercompetitive venue, while Baraka was a small jewel, slightly above the fray on its hillside perch. I would not have foreseen the melding of the two. But now, when you step into what was Baraka, you’ll smell lemongrass and much as I liked Baraka in its several guises over the past six years, I like lemongrass as much. (Outside, incidentally, you’re likely to smell the garlic breath of Goat Hill Pizza across the street.)
The restaurant’s décor looks to have been (so far) little touched by the regime change and the new, golden name. The walls of the h-shaped dining room are still a throbbing red, and there is no host’s station, which means that a line of tables begins within a few feet of the front door. This is awkward for all parties concerned, and it would be worse if the staff was less attentive. But they are very attentive, and blockages are cleared quickly. Still, the tables just inside the door are not exactly choice, and if you can find your way to a table on either side of the dining room, or deeper in, you’ll probably be happier.
The menu reflects the degree to which Vietnamese cooking has come to be accepted as another variety of American comfort food. You can certainly get similar stuff for quite a bit less in the Tenderloin, where it is served in much more modest settings that remind us of how ragged things were for many Vietnamese immigrants a generation ago, at the close of the Vietnam War. And you can get far fancier and pricier food at the Slanted Door. Sunflower sits somewhere between these two poles; it is upscale, in a mild, neighborhood way, while remaining more or less traditional and comparatively inexpensive in its cooking.
You can get imperial rolls, you can get pho (although it’s not called that), you can get garlic noodles ($7.95), and they are excellent. You can also get spring rolls, either with shrimp or in vegetarian guise ($6.95 either way); we found the vegetarian version to be a little heavy on the tofu big, spongy blocks of tastelessness right in the middle of things.
Better were the vegetarian pot stickers ($6.95), which had been steamed (instead of wok-seared in the Chinese style) and therefore lacked that nicely caramelized base. They were also damper overall than their Chinese counterparts, and contained tofu. But they also held a wealth of shredded cabbage and mushroom chunks and were served with a velvet-smooth peanut sauce that helped make up any flavor deficiency.
If you like imperial rolls but are hesitant about ordering deep-fried items outright, you can find them slipped into your vermicelli ($7.95), a big bowl of fine rice noodles overlaid with bean sprouts, mint, ground peanuts, nuoc nam (the ubiquitous, salty-sweet sauce), and some kind of flesh, or no flesh. The barbecued beef in a lemongrass marinade was ethereally tender and fragrant, while the imperial rolls were flawless: nicely crisped skins (with a bit of stubble) enclosing an earthy blend of minced pork and taro.
Grilled lemongrass chicken ($13.95) is generally a bulletproof favorite. Here the kitchen uses strips of boneless breast meat, and as any Thanksgiving cook knows, it’s the white breast meat that’s most in peril of drying out. Our strips were pretty dry and slightly tough, though chicken never gets really tough. Fortunately, lemongrass has powerful therapeutic, or at least distractive, effects, and nuoc nam (a saucer of which seems to be a perpetual presence on most of the tables) is a useful moisturizer.
A dish that helped put Slanted Door on the map, way back when, was shaken (or shaking) beef. Sunflower offers its own, quite worthy version, and if, at $11.95, it isn’t quite a steal, it’s pretty close. The meat (filet mignon or a similar cut, I would guess from the lean tenderness) is cubed, then wokked with garlic and chilies. It isn’t as aromatic as the lemongrass items (and can initially be overwhelmed by them if they’re served simultaneously), but once you start to taste the garlic and feel the chili heat, it becomes addictive.
And may I offer a brief huzzah in the matter of Sunflower’s rice continence: You’re asked if you want it at all, and if you do, the serving for one is about the size and shape of an inverted teacup. Brown rice ($1.75) has an appealing mottled inkiness and a nice toasty taste that reminded me, a little, of sunflower seeds.
Dinner: Sun.Thurs., 5-9:30 p.m.; Fri.Sat., 510 p.m.
Lunch: Mon.Fri., 11 a.m.2:30 p.m.
288 Connecticut, SF
Beer and wine