The arts of the table ... and beyond
Photo by Rory McNamara

It would be possible to enjoy a visit to Bodhi without eating anything at all, and this is not because the restaurant's Vietnamese food is unworthy, but because the setting itself is so rich in allure that just sitting there (perhaps in the company of a good conversationalist, just to be on the safe side) is pleasure enough. Bodhi's atmospheric magic is the magic of Europe's public squares and has to do with architecture, artfulness, and the weaving of the private threads of human lives into a community fabric.

Food is central too, of course, in the casting of this enchantment. But let's begin with the building, a gracious old brick structure that's been subtly brought up to date with a good sandblasting and new windows, which are to a facade what new glasses are to a human face. Inside, the restaurant consists of two boxy, high-ceilinged dining rooms, connected by a grand passageway, like a squared-off proscenium arch, and the walls are hung with colorful abstract art. I have my doubts about abstract art, but I have even graver doubts about restaurants with no art at all on the walls. Art in public spaces, even public spaces devoted to activities other than art appreciation, isn't a luxury and shouldn't be considered discretionary. It's an indispensable ingredient in the flavoring of mood, the temper in which people gather to eat.

Years ago, when a freeway viaduct still blighted the area, the space was occupied by a pan-Asian restaurant called the Window. That enterprise moved to Cathedral Hill and then became a Chinese restaurant. The viaduct, meanwhile, came a-tumblin' down, and, in the vicinity of Valencia and Duboce, it was as if the sun were finally peeping out after years of sullen cloudiness. It didn't hurt, either, that the public housing project across the street was demolished and rebuilt according to a more humane ethic. Inner Valencia still has something of the flavor of undiscovered country, but if Bodhi is a predictor, then the Valencia restaurant corridor could soon reach all the way to Market Street.

Bodhi's food, unlike the Window's, is pretty much straight Vietnamese, as that cuisine has come to be understood in this country, although there are a few little cross-cultural twists and turns here and there: spring rolls filled with Peking duck, for instance, or grilled beef and pineapple, in a brief curtsey toward Hawaii. A representative introduction to the kitchen's style is Bodhi's sampler ($15), a likable hodgepodge of nibbleables and noshables whose members include crispy rolls (stuffed with pork, taro root, carrots, and onions), summer rolls (filled with shrimp, cucumbers, and lettuce and presented as stubby cylinders, like nigiri), sugarcane shrimp (which look like tiny corn dogs), noodle patties, and a long berm of lemongrass grilled beef, suitable for scooping up with lettuce leaves.

After all that, you wouldn't necessarily be panting after soup, though we liked the sweet corn soup with Dungeness crab meat ($5), a kind of egg-drop number with cameos by a couple of big stars. (Seasonality buffs will notice that corn and crab are an awkward combination; the first is a summertime treat, the second a holiday season delicacy. If there is overlap, it would have to fall about now, in midautumn.)

Satay fish ($13) attracted my attention not least because I wondered if we were walking into a disaster. Delicate fish don't always like being skewered and don't always take kindly to the harsh, dry heat of the grill. One foresaw crumblings, disintegrations. But the whitefish filets (of tilapia?) turned out to have been marinated in coconut curry and threaded carefully onto the skewers, and the result was a surprising intactness, with sly but distinct flavors.

More in the extrovert line was citrus chicken ($10), a low mountain range of boneless cutlets that had been breaded and fried until tender gold, then drizzled with an orange reduction, like a spicy-sweet syrup.

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