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The obvious question to ask about V2 is: what about V1? What happened there? Was it an experimental version that didn't quite pan out, like one of Hitler's 11th-hour rockets? Or is it still out there somewhere? Fearless of spirit, we put our obvious question to our server and were told that V2 a small but spiffy Malaysian restaurant that opened toward the end of January in a rapidly changing quarter of SoMa is in fact the younger sibling of V Café, which occupies the old Whiz Wit space on Folsom near 10th Street and serves a menu similar to its predecessor's, with the cheesesteak at its center.
The line of descent seems a little skewed here. If you like V Café, you aren't necessarily going to be prepared for V2, though you might like it as well or even more. Despite the laconic sleekness of the name and the modesty of the physical plant, V2's kitchen turns out striking, full-flavored dishes at prices that almost seem as if they're part of a throwback promotion. Virtually everything on the menu, even at dinner, costs less than $10, and portions are not small.
Tomorrow, meanwhile, rises like Kuala Lumpur a few blocks away, in the form of those huge residential pillars of glass under construction on Rincon Hill. There has already been a certain amount of hand-wringing about the self-containedness of these sky-suburb developments, but the popping up of V2 in the vicinity is a sign that the occupants of the towers are, at some point, expected to grow hungry and come forth in search of food good food, the kind you find in your favorite neighborhood restaurant. While at the moment V2 is a neighborhood restaurant waiting for its neighborhood to take shape, its presence means the area will not be entirely given over to such chain gangers as Starbucks and Au Bon Pain.
Malaysian food per se isn't yet a commonplace around here, but because Malaysia is part of Indochina and counts as its neighbors Thailand, Indonesia, and Singapore with China and India not too much farther away the cooking is not all that foreign. Curry figures widely in V2's seasoning repertoire; there is an obvious kinship to Indian and Thai curries, with the Malaysian varieties being a little smoother and richer than those of India and a little less fruity and hot than their Thai counterparts.
Malaysian curry beef ($7), for instance, consists of strips of meat and cubes of potato in a thick, reddish brown sauce reminiscent of the gravy (supposedly concocted of ketchup and cream to appeal to English tastes) that gives the Anglo-Indian dish tikka masala its endearing character. The curry nose was more pointed in (as the name implies) Indian mee goreng ($7), a stir-fry of spaghettilike noodles in a chili-fired, onion-breath red sauce. You can get chicken or (shelled) prawns for a buck or two extra, but even if you don't, you will find items of interest folded among the noodles, among them flaps of wonton skin, like slices of gratin potatoes, and little stir-fried flour dumplings we thought at first might be tofu. There was an even sharper curry bite, along with a faint yellow iridescence, in cabbage with minced pork, one of the continually varying lunchtime specials. (You get two choices for $7.) There was a faint acridity here, and one suspected the use of commercially prepared curry powder.
If not curry, then sambal belachan (belacan is a more common English spelling), a paste of chiles and shrimp that's used as a condiment in much of Southeast Asia. It turns up, mutedly, in a lunchtime stir-fry of chicken and neatly trimmed string beans; we detected a slight brininess and some heat, but the dish looked so Chinese that we had trouble understanding it as not Chinese. The distinctive flavor of shrimp, interestingly, also went missing in the prawn crackers ($2), those pastel-colored undulations of flash-fried rice flour that, when gathered on a plate, look like miniature versions of all those fake-rock Class M planet surfaces Kirk, Spock, and the gang were forever beaming down to. Despite the prawn deficit, we inhaled them.
One of the liveliest preparations on the menu is beef ribs in OK sauce ($6). The ribs are knuckle-size, and the meat's a little tough you must use your fingers for efficient separating of flesh from bone but the sauce is sensational. It looks like cherry Jell-O that hasn't yet set and combines elements of sweetness and barbecue savory to near-addictive effect. We were scooping up the last of it with spoons long after the final bone had been stripped bare.
Dessert means bananas, fried. We opted for honey ($2.95) rather than vanilla ice cream, on a wan theory of calorie containment. But it probably didn't make much difference in the end, since either way you end up with a half dozen banana fritters: chunks of the fruit dunked in egg batter and deep-fried until golden. We couldn't finish them.
V2 occupies a midblock storefront, which means it's basically a large shoe box with a single set of windows, looking southeast. Nonetheless, the visual flavor is clean and modern, from the cinnamon-colored bamboo floors to the serene beige paint scheme on the walls, along with a few photographs of Kuala Lumpur. As in all such simple, Spartan spaces, noise is a concern; the shrieks and giggles of a trio of iPod-equipped young women several tables away filled the restaurant and actually made us flinch a few times. But that's so often the way it is with neighbors. *
Mon.Fri., 11 a.m.8:30 p.m.; Sat., 12:308 p.m.
518 Bryant, SF
Beer and wine license pending