If the archetypal American success story is, or was, the move to the bigger house in the better neighborhood, then Straits Restaurant (né Straits Cafe) is an archetypal American success. The restaurant, born late in the Reagan years in a modest corner spot in the inner Richmond, moved about five years ago to massive new digs in the Westfield Center, right in the heart of shoppers’ city. It also became a small chain, with outposts on the Peninsula and as far afield as Houston and Atlanta.
Clearly, Chris Yeo, the impresario behind Straits, does not lack for ambition. The question is what is gained at what cost in a transformation of such magnitude. Recently I stepped into Straits full of skepticism, having first had to overcome a slight wave of mallphobia. and found myself in what could have been a dimly lit soundstage where the Sex and the City folk might have been shooting one of their downtown-club scenes. There was a huge bar and an array of dramatic light fixtures dangling from the soaring ceiling as tubes of crinkled paper.
My only qualm about this handsome setting was that the homemade, slightly kitschy flavor of the original place — the lengths of corrugated iron roofing, the false façade of palm fronds — has been lost. Would you rather have a slightly out-of-round cookie that plainly has been shaped by hand, or a perfectly round one from a machine? I favor the handmade, since in our ever-more mechanized world, the hand-finished or homemade article is both a rarity and a reminder that our connections to this earth need not be mediated by machines.
What about the food? Straits for years was a great beacon of Singaporean cooking, itself an attractive blend of influences from east, south, and southeast Asia as well as Europe. And, considering that it served some of the best food in the city — and by best I mean interestingly tasty — it was very reasonably priced. A move to a huge (and surely pricey) space in a mall in the city center would have to be a dim augury.
But no! The food remains recognizable; it is vivid and it is excellent, and while prices have tended up from a decade ago, here as everywhere, they are surprisingly restrained. While some of the beef and seafood dishes do reach dizzying heights (the crab and lobster main dishes push near $40), the chicken dishes are all $14 or less — and let’s remember that because the chicken is native to southeast Asia, the region’s cuisines grew up with and around it and are tuned for it. And I was glad to see the menu still listed an old favorite, roti prata ($7), shreds of griddled Indian flatbread with a rich yellow-curry dipping sauce that had just enough fire to be interesting.
The spiciness of the food is, overall, expertly controlled. Some of the dishes supplied a strong chili kick, in particular the beef rendang ($14), cubes of stringy meat (brisket?) braised with Kaffir lime and served with a wedge of polenta whose pandan flavoring gave it a green worthy of Star Trek‘s food synthesizers. But spicy basil chicken ($12), with shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and Thai basil, was milder, almost cooling — and of a natural color — despite its red-flag name. And the wonderful mee goreng ($14), a bowl of fat egg noodles tossed with tiger prawns, tofu, cabbage, potatoes, and tomato, brought a whiff of fragrant sweetness despite, again, use of the word “spicy” on the menu card.
If you want to be absolutely sure about fire management, a salad would do the trick, maybe the lovely spinach salad ($10), a heap of baby leaves tossed with tiger prawns, crunchy toasted coconut and peanuts, lime, and a deeply fruity tamarind dressing. For striking visuals, there is no topping the Indonesian corn croquettes ($9). The fritters were less flavorful than they looked, so the matter of condiment assistance wasn’t a trivial one. With a more deeply imagined sauce, this could be an unforgettable dish, a signature.
As someone who has been to Las Vegas and lived to tell, I left Straits thinking that it could easily be in Vegas. It has the necessary scale and generic glamour; it’s affordable and good. There’s nothing not to like except that I don’t like Las Vegas, and I did like the old place in its glorified shack, where the touch of the human hand was still palpable.
Sun.–Thurs., 11 a.m.–9 p.m.;
Fri.–Sat., 11 a.m.–10 p.m.
845 Market, Fourth Floor, SF