Burma Superstar opens an upscale cousin up the street
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If you run a successful restaurant on Clement Street, apparently you face a terrible temptation to open another restaurant on Clement Street across the road, perhaps, or on the next block. And the new place should appeal to a different socioeconomic stratum. For grand Clémentine, this formula resulted in the opening, about four years ago, of Bistro Clement, an earthier and less formal sibling that trafficked in traditional French bistro dishes.
Now the Burma Superstar people, just a block or so to the west of Clémentine, have borrowed a page from the Clémentine script and, in early May, opened their own companion venture, B Star. In a small, or not-so-small, irony, B Star occupies the space held by Bistro Clement before it went under. If that is a bad omen, let's consider some favorable ones: unlike Bistro Clement, B Star represents an upmarket, not downmarket, move. (Burma Superstar's lofty reputation has to do with its food, not its ambience) Also, the menu is, of course, Burmese (-ish), and the new place is on the same side of the street as the parent restaurant.
If you're on foot, in fact, you're not likely to miss B Star. It's the mid-block spot with would-be patrons idling and swirling on the sidewalk and in the doorway. Yes, the crowds have already descended, apparently drawn by alluring whiffs of upmarketry and innovative Asian cooking. That formula has been working at nearby Namu, and now it works at B Star, though the two are hardly interchangeable. While Namu is of the night, B Star has the look of day: knotted pine floors, creamy yellow walls, globes of soft light dangling from the ceiling, and a fair amount of lush greenery. If Namu is an ersatz nightclub, then B Star has a certain gazebo quality, even in the evening.
The menu card adverts to "simple and wholesome Asian-style comfort foods." Never have so few syllables signaled so much to so many; they make me think of meatloaf tataki. B Star doesn't offer that (does anyone?), but the kitchen does turn out dishes all along the innovation spectrum, from a fabulous, if traditional, platha ($4.50) a disc of pastry-like flatbread, cut into quarters and presented with an irresistible curry sauce for dipping to a heart-shaped potpie ($14) filled with Thai-style salmon, carrots, red peppers, zucchini, and snap peas awash in a green curry coconut milk sauce that doesn't lack for chile punch.
Most of the dishes strike a reasonable balance between familiarity and wildness. Care is taken with putf8gs and other small touches, and the ensemble of crockery, rich in eccentric shapes, has a museum-of-modern-art feel that subtly elevates the food it carries. Also, the kitchen is keenly attentive to the matter of texture and to the value of crunchiness, in particular. We detected a definite crispness in a vegetarian samusa soup (a $7 bowl was plenty for two), whose delights included cabbage, lentils, potatoes worthies all, though soft and falafel. I love falafel but had never before enjoyed it in any other form than wrapped in a pita or lavash. Here it resulted in a soup that went crunch, and we only wished that the murky, curry-scented, slightly metallic broth had been a little less harsh.
"It's missing something," my companion said. Salt? Salting helped but did not cure. Something freshening or fruity, maybe?
Additional crunch turned up in kau soi ($11), a large, shallow bowl filled with noodles, bean sprouts, pickled mustard greens, and ground chicken, each in its place, which made the bowl look like a 3-D map of some ethnically fractured island. It fell to the diner to mix and mingle (as with the Korean beef salad known as bi bim bop), and one of the first things this diner noticed was that the chicken more shredded than ground, I thought was wonderfully crispy, in contrast to the soft-focus players. If any dish at B Star manages a rustic sophistication, it's this one.
Since the menu offered no meatloaf tataki, we settled for a spicy-tuna version ($8.50). The fish had been crusted with crushed peppercorns au poivre-style, seared, cut into slices, and served with a gingery mush dotted with bits of jalapeño pepper and flecks of cilantro. It was also quite chilly, which suggested pre-preparation but also brought a cold-flash counterpoint to a parade of dishes that ranged from warm to scorching.
A nicely balanced dish, in this respect, was the duck lettuce cups ($8). The lettuce consisted of long spears, crisp and cool as an early spring in morning; they were on hand here so we could scoop up the duck, a pile of cooling but still warm shredded meat (like the pork in mu shu pork) perfumed with five-spice powder and laced with a mince of red bell pepper, carrots, celery, and scallions. Our only complaint was that the lettuce spears were not particularly useful as scoops; the regular lettuce cups (of broader and more pliant butter-leaf lettuce) would have been better.
Just as it must be hard to be the child of a famous or accomplished parent, so it must be difficult to be the offspring of a restaurant that uses "superstar" for part of its name. Expectations are bound to be stoked. "Star" is at least more modest than "superstar," particularly when it's denoted by a symbol rather than spelled out as a word. And B Star does have glints of something special: the best dishes are memorable, the look is appealing, and the staff is as young and energetic as the crowd. A B is good, but give us an A !
Dinner: Tues.Thurs., 59:30 p.m.; Fri.Sun., 510 p.m.
Lunch: Tues.Sun., 11:30 a.m.3 p.m.
127 Clement, SF
Beer, wine, soju