The arts of the table ... and beyond
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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. White rice or cold rice noodles made adequate accompaniments, but you're not likely to miss them if they're not there.
At lunch the servings are, if anything, even more generous than those in the evening. I struggled through a rather vast plate of garlic noodles ($7.50) tossed with shreds of sautéed beef, while a green papaya salad ($6.50) a formidable mound in its own right was augmented by steamed shrimp, halved lengthwise. The papaya in this salad was crisper than what I have found to be usual and also dressed with a bolder, more acidic lime vinaigrette than is typically the case. Only the seafood combo ($8), a jumble of shrimp and calamari in a lively amber sauce, with green beans and zigzaggy tabs of carrot thrown in for color, was reasonable enough in size to finish without being incapacitated for the rest of the afternoon.
Bodhi, as a culinary experience, isn't the match of a place like Dragonfly, which lifts Vietnamese cooking to a sublime level without doing violence to its basic character. But even the grandest restaurant is never entirely about food; a meal in a restaurant is a holistic interval whose meaning and value turn not merely on what is eaten but on whom it's eaten with and in what setting. In this enveloping sense, Bodhi is unlike any other place I can think of on Valencia Street's ever-longer restaurant row; it's the sort of place you go to when you want to keep talking to whomever you're with long after the last platter has been cleared and the conversation has turned to the subject of art, abstract art, perhaps, pros and cons cons first, please! *
Mon.Thurs., 11 a.m.10 p.m.; Fri.Sat., 11 a.m.11:30 p.m.; Sun., noon10 p.m.
211 Valencia, SF
Beer and wine
Pleasant noise level