Khai Vietnamese Nouveau, which opened on Townsend and 7th Street at the end of 2016, implies a kind of fusion food, the likes of which we’ve seen before. Maybe French-inflected Vietnamese cooking, I thought, or pan-Asian hybrid dishes that incorporate local ingredients into traditional cooking styles. It is neither of these things. Rather, Khai is an homage to chef Khai Duong’s home, Nha Trang (a coastal city in southern Vietnam); the classical cooking techniques he learned at Le Cordon Bleu; and his large imagination for envisioning unique flavor combinations for both our local bounty and for special imported ingredients you won’t see elsewhere in the U.S.
Case in point is dish number one of ten in Duong’s leisurely tasting menu: fresh seaweed salad with onion, mint, chili dressing, chopped peanuts and shallots. The seaweed is a deep-water white variety found only in parts of Vietnam, for which there are no U.S. importers. So, his family in Nha Trang sends him a batch every two weeks. Duong, better known as Chef Khai, explains that this seaweed is difficult to get even in Vietnam because most of it is exported to Japan for collagen extraction. Besides being gorgeous, the dish is flavor-saturated, the seaweed crisp and succulent.
The next dish, wildly creative and equally precise as the seaweed salad, is a wild matsutake mushroom paté served with homemade rice crackers, presented on a piece of coral with honey and pink Himalayan salt. It’s an attractive dish as well as a delicious one, allowing you to experiment with proportions of sweet, salty and umami flavors.
The crab sausage course is a very rich couple of bites of firm, smooth-textured sausage with more of those earthy-sweet matsutake mushrooms and magrut lime-jalapeño sauce, an ethereal yet complex dish I can’t even imagine trying to replicate, presented simply on a pickled watermelon radish. While any dish on this menu could become a signature for Chef Khai, I predict that this one will become synonymous with his evolving style.
Duong mills about the room in between each course, serving guests and discussing the nuances of each dish. He has set up shop—just six two-top tables and a larger table in back—in somewhat of a permanent pop-up style, having rented the Bonjour Patisserie space for his two evening seatings, Tuesday through Saturday. He was forced out of the space that housed the much-loved, elegant, but more traditional Ana Mandara in 2012, after 12 years there, and then he spent four years traveling, mostly through Vietnam, to re-invent himself as a chef. His inspiration shows on each plate and throughout the tasting menu.
One of my favorite dishes, wild salmon ceviche with pork belly, rice noodle, egg, green apple, and banana sauce arrived next, a delicate, decadent salad-style ceviche in which the fish is not disguised with heavy citrus or other seasonings, but rather presented as the anchor on a plate of complementary flavors.
Up to now we’d been drinking a Noria Chardonnay, a Sonoma Coast bottling modeled after junmai-ginjo sake. Chef Khai’s approach to wine pairings is simple, even austere, and this philosophy works with his menu. The wine is not a distraction from the food in any sense, but a harmonious partner. We switched to red for the remainder of the meal, a Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir that was appropriately more subtle than many Santa Barbara Pinot Noirs, but still came across as American in style.
The most Frenchified dish on the menu, delicately smoked beef tartare, is also Vietnam-forward, with onion, coriander and tamarind, along with plantain, which reads a bit like green banana in this presentation.
One of my favorite dishes of the evening was the baked butterfish with fresh galangal, turmeric, dill and scallions, a twist on the Japanese miso-marinated butterfish that we often see. The turmeric rub grounds the buttery filet, while the galangal lifts it off the plate. And the contrasting colors on the plate are very compelling to look at before you devour each bite.
Crispy quail with roasted garlic, salted egg and mashed cassava is about as heavy as Duong’s cooking gets, which is to say, not very. But this is a very rich dish, and one I couldn’t quite finish, knowing I was only on the seventh course and had three more to go.
The one red-meat course, pan-seared rack of lamb, is rubbed with Vietnamese spices and cooked to medium-rare, then plated with, lemongrass and eggplant, all doused in a grassy scallion oil. Though I don’t know the dish’s origin, it’s the one I most associate with Duong’s cooking at Ana Mandara.
Dessert is course nine, and it’s a love-or-hate affair, depending on how you feel about durian. This was the most high-falutin’ presentation of the pungent fruit I’d ever tried, and I quite loved it, despite the fact that I’ve never eaten it regularly enough to be the kind of person who craves it, though I have several friends who are. Silky coconut rolls are filled with durian and gooseberry and served in a mint-infused coconut sauce. The bright, tart gooseberry is a nice counterpoint to the low-toned, almost skunky, durian, and gives the dish a puckery punch.
Luckily for my stomach, the tenth course is a relaxing lemongrass tea, also with a hint of durian, but in the context of sweetly spicy candied ginger.
This is destination dining for those inclined toward tasting menus of any kind, and a value in the Bay Area for 10 courses at $95. And Chef Khai, with his charming presence, is a wonderful guide to the meal and to the cooking style he’s inventing, practically before your eyes.
Khai Vietnamese Nouveau
655 Townsend St.
San Francisco, CA 94103 [Map]
Ph: (415) 724-2325
Hours: Tues-Sat, seatings at 5:30pm and 8:30pm
Price Range: $$$$ ($95 tasting menu)
Facebook: Khai Restaurant