Lotus land

By Paul Reidinger

FIRST, A brief announcement: Dragonfly serves, in my view, the best contemporary Vietnamese cooking in the city. And yes, I count among its competitors the Slanted Door (elevated now to that food Valhalla, the Ferry Building) and Ana Mandara, the estimable spot with the spectacular soundstage atmospherics in Ghirardelli Square. (I omit Le Colonial because I've never been there; my one visit to Cosmo Place was long ago and had as its purpose the drinking of Trader Vic's notorious Polynesian cocktails from huge tureens until blotto-ness was achieved. It was.) It might be that Dragonfly's food is merely as good as the food at those places, but it is certainly far less expensive and therefore a far better value, and it is served in a well-combed, intimate neighborhood setting that feels both casual and special.

Perhaps the biggest surprise about Dragonfly is that it, or a place very much like it, didn't appear sooner. (The restaurant opened in June in the old Shanghai Restaurant space, pretty much the tail end of Ninth Avenue's restaurant row.) Although, among the Indochinese cuisines, that of France's onetime colony Vietnam, would seem to be the most easily adaptable to the moods and ways of California, the Vietnamese restaurants in this city have thus far sorted themselves out according to a kind of third-world model. At the top we find a few fabulously celebrated and pricey spots, while much further down the socioeconomic scale is pretty much everything else: the little sandwich shops, the linoleum-clad seafood houses, the array of family-run restaurants along Clement Street.

There hasn't, until now, been much of a middle (possible exception: the durable Saigon Saigon), and it is in the middle, after all, where aspiration has the best chance of taking root and thriving. The Slanted Door, let us not forget, opened in the mid-1990s in a Mission District location that was still quite iffy. I remember having lunch there one day while, on the sidewalk just beyond the slanted windows, muttering people shook their fists at the sky, then at us, before moving along with their shopping carts. It wasn't really until the ravening Bill Clinton took to the place that its reputation soared.

At the moment Dragonfly seems unlikely to benefit from any such boost. The present prez is better known for toppling headfirst from his bicycle than for caring about food, and he wouldn't exactly be a welcome guest in this city even if he does end up being impeached and bounced from office by a newly Democratic Congress. No, Dragonfly will get no help from POTUS; it will have to ascend on the strength of its own glistening wings.

Although the restaurant has had its share of start-up coughs and sputters – most pertaining to service, which is attentive and intelligent even when the timing goes a little awry or a trainee makes a misstep – many of the little graces that for patrons can mean the difference between an ordinary experience and a memorable one are already in place. The specter of dinginess that haunted the previous occupant has been exorcised, for one thing; the chairs are discreetly handsome, in that Italian chrome-and-leather way, and the tables draped with crisp white linens. The speaking of English does not seem to give offense.

Every dinner begins with a complimentary amuse-bouche: a small plate of shrimp rolls, say, or a sampling of batter-fried golden shrimp. These little plates carry messages of welcome and generousness of spirit, but they are also devourable, and since you won't be getting any bread, they nicely fill the gap between being seated and being served a starter. The cleanup hitter among these first courses is the Dragonfly taste ($13.95), a sampler platter that includes golden shrimp, spring rolls, slices of sesame beef (along with dipping sauces of peanut, nuoc mam, and sweet chili), and lotus-root salad. This last item alone was worth the price of admission; it combined reddish-brown, almost baconlike shards of lotus root (the lotus is a relative of the water lily and is prized for its medicinal powers) with wheat noodles, ground pork, shrimp, and ground peanuts in a nuoc mam-based sauce freshened with mint.

Other openers might include an encore of golden shrimp, this time as part of a salad ($8.50) given a pleasant tartness by a bed of pickled cabbage, or asparagus soup ($5.95), essentially an egg-drop soup fortified with crab meat and a few ceremonial coins of asparagus, sliced thin and on an elongated bias. Our enthusiasm was only slightly curbed by the sautéed green beans ($7.50), which were served in a generous portion but seemed a little flat and featureless despite a dice of white radish and an oyster sauce.

Main courses recaptured whatever momentum we had lost. The crispy calamari ($9) could have been a cliché, but instead the bits and pieces were given some sort of garlic-influenced coating that wasn't quite a batter and then fried quickly enough to retain some tenderness. Coconut pork ($9.50) consisted of cubes of meat cooked in a clay pot with coconut juice, a caramel-colored fluid (laced with fish sauce) not to be confused with coconut milk, though as intensely coconutty if not more so. My only complaint: that there wasn't more of this dish. Seafood curry ($12.95) – an array of crustaceans and mollusks presented on a sizzling cast-iron platter – carried the gentle scent of fresh curry paste rather than the harsher blast of powdered curry. And five-spice chicken ($9), deboned and crisp of skin, could nearly have passed for duck and offered a nice reminder that chicken is one of the native glories of Indochina. It's a fresh slant, we could say, on an old workhorse.

Dragonfly. 420 Judah (at Ninth Ave.), SF. (415) 661-7755. Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Beer and wine. American Express, MasterCard, Visa. Moderately noisy. Wheelchair accessible.