When you first walk into Ana Mandara, you are greeted by the feeling that you are not in a restaurant at all, but rather in a courtyard tucked away off the streets in Colonial Vietnam. The restaurant is dramatic, with two stories. The lower level is the main restaurant, and a sweeping staircase leads to the Cham Bar and Lounge on the upper level. There are building facades that look like ancient temples, and other Asian artifacts that are a part of the surroundings, and they help give the feeling of being secreted away.
The menu tells the story of Ana Mandara, which means "beautiful refuge," and is a tragic love story rivaling Romeo and Juliet. All of the food has unique, beautiful names, like "Hands of the Child," and "After the Rains," and they too make you feel like you are in some special, exotic place.
The food is exquisite, with a tremendous range of tastes. The seared foie gras, called "Heaven Rewards" was cooked to perfection, and makes you feel like have received a reward from heaven.
The Dungeness crab soup, called "Dreams of Sea and Fire," was sweet and creamy, and filled with large chunks of Dungeness crab and thick noodles that were reminiscent of Japanese soba noodles. The soup had just the right combination of spices to bring out the best flavor of the crab. My dining companion had the Kaffir lime and lemongrass soup, which came with the most tender slices of filet mignon and crisp enoki mushrooms.
My entrée, the Mekong Delta prawns, were served in a clay pot. Unfortunately, they arrived with their heads still attached, and it really put me off from eating the dish. Even more surprising was that when I recoiled from the plate, and mentioned the heads, our server didn't offer to either remove them at the table, or take the dish back to the kitchen to remove the heads. He just continued to scoop the prawns and sauce into a riceless dish. Thankfully my husband came to the rescue, and beheaded my prawns while I checked out the ladies room. My husband had the braised pork belly, and it reminded him of the very best barbequed pork you could ever imagine eating, and he continues to talk about it regularly.
We ordered the sautéed French beans with scallions. Unfortunately, they were forgotten by our waitress until we mentioned it after being served our entrees. The scallions were caramelized, and tasted fabulous.
For dessert I had the Meyer lemon mousse, served in a frozen, hollowed-out orange with candied slivers of orange peel. The mousse reminded me of the best lemon pound cake that somehow got turned into the lightest, fluffiest lemon dessert. The mousse was sweet, without being cloying, and left no hint of tartness, just an overwhelmingly lemon flavor, and the candied orange peel slivers provide the perfect sweetness for the lemony mousse. We also had the molten chocolate cake, which was served with vanilla bean ice cream. The chocolate was bittersweet and mixed nicely with the vanilla bean ice cream.
This was our first visit early in the week, and unfortunately the table service was really off. Late or missing food, and inattentive service were very disappointing for such a usually fantastic restaurant.
Occupation: E-learning Expert
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: RNM
Reviewed Ana Mandara: Monday, June 11, 2007
I have to confess at the outset that the fact that Ana Mandara is located in the darkest heart of the S.F. tourist district may have somewhat colored my perceptions of the whole experience. Actually, I had already heard good things about it from a number of trusted sources, so before we got there, I felt that if I did have any bias, it was definitely a favorable one. However, as we walked from the car towards Ghirardelli Square, I could feel my goodwill eroding with every “Alcatraz Psycho Ward” t-shirt and cable car snow globe we passed. So when we got to the restaurant and my very first thought was that we had stepped into the EPCOT version of Colonial Vietnam, I began to wonder if I really was going to be able to judge the place fairly.
It was my partner Don’s birthday, and although Ana Mandara probably wouldn’t have been his first choice, he graciously agreed to donate his special night to the Check, Please! cause. It was a Monday, and we got there pretty early, but we were still a little surprised to find that we practically had the place to ourselves. The décor, as I’ve mentioned, is all Theatrical Exotica. Huge architectural set pieces, which look like they might have been scavenged from a 1950s production of Flower Drum Song, loom over the main dining room. Brass railings, bamboo shutters, ficus trees, and latticework all hammer away at the 1930s Colonial theme, and, in case you still hadn’t gotten the point, the walls are hung with sepia-toned images of what appear to be Vietnamese children in French public school uniforms. Walking up the faux-marble stairs to the “Cham Bar,” I had the distinct feeling that we had crossed that invisible line into Theme Restaurant territory.
As neither of us was particularly hungry -- and it was happy hour -- we decided to start celebrating Don’s eighth annual 30th birthday with some of Ana Mandara’s specialty cocktails. I said in my earlier review of the Front Porch that I was a big fan of girly drinks. Well, the Emperor Bao Dai Imperial Martini -- a bizarre concoction of vodka, champagne, and passion fruit syrup, served in a glass with a sugar-caked rim -- actually made me rethink that position. Let’s just say that it would make an Appletini look like grain alcohol in comparison.
After I had recovered from my diabetic coma, we headed downstairs. At this point, things were picking up a bit in the dining room, and Don and I were able to play a very enjoyable game of “Identify the Regional Accent” as we eavesdropped on neighboring tables. The menu took a little getting used to: everything on it sounds like a Zhang Yimou film. The crab soup, for instance, isn’t called “crab soup”, but “Dreams of Sea and Fire.” This strategy felt more than a little cloying, and, on occasion, the mental associations these titles conjured weren’t especially appealing. Do I really want to think of what “Running through the Fields” has to do with a seared beef appetizer? (Did someone set an unsuspecting cow on fire, perhaps)? Or why the house salad should be called “Asleep in the Petals”? (Does it contain opiates? Can I operate heavy machinery after eating it?)
The “Delicate Dew Drops” -- a.k.a. shrimp and chicken dumplings -- were certainly flavorful, but a little too delicate and dewy for our tastes. They were sitting in a light broth and had attained a texture that I imagine might be close to that of a decomposing jellyfish. When we tried to pick them up with chopsticks, they fell into limp bits, and they had a distinctly slimy quality going down. “Running through the Fields,” however, turned out to be excellent. The beef was given only the briefest pan-sear and left rare to the point of raw. Dressed with a tangy-sweet tamarind sauce and tossed with fresh herbs and peanuts, the dish really surprised us with its bright and refreshing combination of flavors. As it was a birthday dinner (like we really needed an excuse), we decided to give the “Smokey Wonders” a try as well. No, it’s not a hotel lounge R&B cover band, but an appetizer of honey-barbecue sauce-slathered spare ribs. The fact that they were exceedingly sweet did not prevent us from polishing off all six.
By the time our entrees arrived, we started to realize that the “sweet-and-tangy” motif had developed into the dominant theme of the meal. Fortunately for Don, he had ordered the “Paradise Found” -- a cashew and pine nut-crusted Alaskan halibut filet served with eggplant ratatouille and a pomegranate gastrique. Although this latter accompaniment was also sweet and tangy, in a by now too familiar way, it was nicely counterbalanced by the gingery, peppery, crunchy crust on the fish. I, unfortunately, realized too late that my lamb chop dish -- the “Smoke and Seduction” -- featured the same tamarind sauce that had already made an appearance in the beef appetizer. While the sauce was used with restraint and nuance in that earlier dish, it all but completely overwhelmed the lamb in the main course. To make matters worse, it was accompanied by a disproportionately large stack of mung bean sprouts which, bizarrely, concealed a hockey-puck sized patty of an unidentifiable fried starch beneath it. I later found out that the starch was cassava, but at the time, its dense, almost gelatinous texture led me to conclude that it was some kind of microwaveable latke.
The meal came to a surprising end when, to our relief and delight, we found that the dessert course would actually be less sweet than some of the dishes that preceded it. Don’s flourless coconut rum cake had an almost savory, bread-pudding like quality, and its accompaniment of kumquat ice cream provided a clean, refreshing contrast. I decided that, for the sake of the show, I needed to sample what the menu announced was “Chef Khai’s Signature Dish,” the chilled mango soup. This one dish, I must say, came very close to expunging every other culinary infraction from the record that evening.
To say that the soup tastes like nothing other than the intensified essence of fresh mango is to pay it a pretty high compliment, but it only tells part of the story. What makes the dish exciting is not just the flavors, but the complicated textural interplay that happens when you really start to get into it. The silkiness of the mango puree provides the background against which all the other textural elements come to the fore: First, there’s the suppleness of the “mango noodles,” long ribbons cut directly from the flesh of the fruit. Then, there’s the cold, crystalline graininess of the durian sorbet; its not-too-sweet taste mitigating the intensity of the mango itself. Finally, and most satisfyingly, there’s the occasional crunch of freshly cracked black pepper, accompanied by the fiery burst of heat and spice. What strikes me as more than a little ironic is that the dish that turned out to be the most poetic of the night was the only one that didn’t have a pretentious title: it appears on the menu simply as “Mango Soup.”
The only conclusion to draw here, I think, is that beneath all the contrived trappings, there’s a really creative and talented chef at work at Ana Mandara. One can't really fault a restaurant that’s located right in the heart of a tourist mecca for not wanting to scare off the P.F. Chang’s set. This is why, I’d guess, a lot of the dishes tend towards the sweet and tangy end of the spectrum, emphasizing those bold, obvious flavors that won’t alienate the Red State diners. However, with a little patience and maybe some experienced guidance in successfully navigating the menu, I’d say that there’s at least one truly excellent meal to be had here.
Occupation: Management Consultant
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: The Front Porch
Reviewed Ana Mandara: Saturday, June 9, 2007
We made reservations for Saturday, June 9, 2007 at 6:30pm and found easy street parking on the same block. There is also garage parking at Ghirardelli Square. There were plenty of tables with no waiting time. The decor was absolutely grand. From the outside it looked like a brick warehouse. However, once inside, everything was detailed in elegant tropical colonial French-Vietnamese style. This included large artificial trees, bamboos, paintings, stone carvings, vases, stone flooring, and tropical shutters on the windows. Most of the patrons were middle aged tourists. The staff was wonderful and attentive. We did not have to wait; everything was served timely.
We ordered a bottle of South African Pinotage wine, which complemented the meal very well. Since we were four adults and Aiden (a two-year-old), we decided to eat family style, and shared a salad, a special, as well as a few sides, entrees, and desserts. The salad was the "Heat of the Moment" (a crunchy green papaya and green apple salad with fresh house made beef jerky and chili vinaigrette.) The spicy beef jerky enhanced the taste of the bland-ish green papaya, while providing the dual texture. The Shrimp Roll special was presented in a unique dual wicker basket with fresh lettuce cup leaves, which were used to wrap around the shrimp rolls. The appetizers included the Whispering Waves (crispy lobster ravioli with mango and coconut sauce), which was truly delectable and our favorite by far, and Monks' Purse (vegetarian Vietnamese steamed dumplings with porcini mushroom). The sides included the stir-fried snow pea sprouts with garlic and oyster sauce, which was yummy. Sticky black rice mildly cleansed our palates in between the other spicy dishes. Similarly, the jasmine rice steamed with pandanus leaf, soaked up the gravy from the other spicy dishes. For entrees we had the River of Dreams (Mekong Delta prawns sautéed with oyster mushrooms, ginko nuts, and light caramel tomato sauce, served in a claypot), which had a sweet and spicy sauce and ginko nuts that were so soft, they almost melted on our tongues.