The magic pan
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In the kitchen of David's Kitchen, a tiny restaurant in the Sunset, you will find David. The kitchen is of the semiexhibition sort, viewable from the snug dining room through a rectangular aperture that looks as if it once might have housed a picture window or maybe a large plasma flat-screen television. Was this space once home to a sports bar? David is David Chang, a native of China who opened the place with his wife, Terri, about four years ago. He could have called it David Chang, if he'd cared to join the trend of to-the-greater-glory-of-me chef-owners who name their restaurants after themselves. I have sometimes wondered how often these grand people can actually be found in their own kitchens. "David's Kitchen" suggests to us that David is actually in the kitchen, and so he is, perhaps cooking your lunch after taking your order. At lunch it can be just you and him; it's like having your own short-order chef. He seats you, writes down what you want, then makes and serves it. You are happy, even when he presents the bill, which your own short-order chef would never be so crass as to do. But then, even the best fantasies have limits.
It would be difficult to overstate the intimacy of David's Kitchen. Like Thai Time, the fabulous and impossibly small restaurant on Eighth Avenue in the Inner Richmond, David's Kitchen has only a handful of tables and fills to near capacity when a few parties of three or four come through the door at about the same time. If there had been an Asian restaurant on Skylab, the makeshift space station from the 1970s, it might have looked something like this. While David's menu does include a strong Thai element, it's pan-Asian in a way Thai Time's isn't; there are even a few New World items thrown in for fun? Or because of neighborhood demand? One of them, the chicken barley soup ($3.50), we found to be insipid, but that was the only dish we came across that failed to sing in a clear, strong voice.
Even among the Asian dishes, one finds the occasional global touch. Although fat seafood noodles ($5.95 at lunch) spoke with a pronounced Thai accent the sauce was coconut-milk green curry, with a strong subplot of chile heat the noodles themselves were fettuccine, for a slight Marco Polo twist. The seafood, meanwhile (shrimp, mussels, clams, and whitefish, leavened with zucchini quarters), was immaculate, in keeping with the restaurant's assurance that "we use only the freshest ingredients."
XO chow fun noodles ($5.95), on the other hand, were the broad, glistening Chinese rice-flour kind, tossed with shreds of boneless chicken, bean sprouts, scallions, and (the star ingredient) XO sauce, a Hong Kong<\d>style paste of dried shrimp and scallop along with garlic, onion, and chile peppers. This saucing gave the dish a flat, fierce heat, like an August day on the Great Plains quite different from the rounded punch of the fat noodles with a strong hint of onion breath and some soy saltiness.
Although many of the appetizers will seem familiar to anyone who's eaten at a Thai or Chinese restaurant in these parts (and who hasn't?), David's versions are mostly executed with a soupçon of panache, which helps make them memorable. The crispy fish cakes ($5.75), for example, will never be mistaken for tortilla chips, but they do minimize the characteristic rubberiness of the average fish cake and achieve a delicate stiffening around the edges. It helps that they're quite flat, like small griddle cakes.
Spring rolls ($4.95) were nearly ordinary, despite a weighty filling of shredded chicken, bean sprouts, and shiitake mushrooms and a crime-scene-red dipping sauce redolent of chiles and garlic. But the veggie pancake ($5.25) was unlike anything I've had before, a kind of soft Asian crepe, like a socca or farinata, made from ground lotus and taro root (instead of chickpea flour) and spruced up with water chestnuts, scallions, and pesto.
We also detected European influences, or echoes, in a duck curry stew ($9.95), a crock of meat, potatoes, and carrots that resembled beef burgundy, except that the beef was duck (a little fatty, but tasty) and the sauce had no red wine but plenty of yellow curry, mildest of the Thai curries. Spicy sunflower chicken ($6.75), on the other hand, though not yellow, was straight from Thailand a larb, really, of minced white chicken tossed with a lively combination of Thai basil, garlic, and chiles. The meat was heaped in the center of a large plate, with canoelike leaves of endive set around the perimeter like hour markings on a watch. The endive was convenient for the scooping up of the minced meat, of course, but even after the leaves had run out, all the members of our table, forks in hand, were jostling for a crack at the last of the chicken.
The kitchen at David's Kitchen doesn't much look like the kitchen at Canteen, Dennis Leary's small boutique place downtown. Leary's kitchen is L-shaped, for one thing, and also more exhibitiony: you can sit at the counter and watch the chef work the stoves.
But to be at either place is to be aware that the restaurant as a labor of love is a phenomenon that persists even in this overpriced city and that there are a few fine chefs who still do their own cooking. And then some. *
Lunch: Tues.Sat., 11:30 a.m.2:30 p.m. Dinner: Tues.Thurs. and Sun., 59:30 p.m., Fri.Sat., 510 p.m.
1713 Taraval, SF
Beer and wine