Mise en (Cosmo) place: The atmospheric former home of Trader Vic's serves French-influenced Vietnamese cuisine
DINE Could there be a more enchanted address for a restaurant in San Francisco than 20 Cosmo Place? No. "Cosmo" gives us an urban, even cosmopolitan, glamour, while "place" suggests, at least, a degree of refuge from the maelstrom of city traffic. Cosmo Place does not disappoint; it has something of the air of Shepherd Market, the warren of quaint lanes stashed well off the main thoroughfares in London's posh Mayfair district, and also of the small plazas ringed with outdoor cafes you might find near the waterfront in Barcelona.
For more than 40 years, until the early 1990s, 20 Cosmo Place was the home of Trader Vic's, which was probably the most famous restaurant in the city and one of the best-known in the country. Although there were — and remain — other Trader Vic's restaurants around the country and the globe, none could match Cosmo Place for sheer atmospherics. But the founder and namesake, Vic Bergeron, had died in 1984, and with his passing came a reordering of the empire that included closing the Cosmo Place restaurant. Trader Vic's reopened some years later in the city, in the old Stars location on Golden Gate Avenue, but that experiment was short-lived.
On Cosmo Place, meanwhile, a new presence arrived in 1998. This was Le Colonial, a high-end Vietnamese spot with (like Trader Vic's) outposts in several other major U.S. cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. There was, for me, a certain sorrow in the passing of Trader Vic's, which was certainly a San Francisco institution of the first order. But the transition was smooth enough, the newcomer thrived, and now, more than a decade on, Le Colonial seems as permanent as Trader Vic's once did. Yet one cannot forget the predecessor.
When I crossed the threshold at 20 Cosmo Place recently, it was for the first time in nearly 30 years. One evening early in that long-ago June, a group of us came to the city and to Trader Vic's as graduating college seniors, got massively blitzed on tropical drinks that came in gigantic tureens, and left ... well, I don't remember leaving. I know only that I must have. Three decades on, the basic layout came as a delightful surprise to me despite (by all accounts) being pretty much the same as before.
The entryway is still a long breezeway set with tables, wicker chairs, and potted plants covered by a roof of ironwork and glass such as you might find in a belle époque rail station. It is reached from the street, or lane, by an impressive set of stairs. At the far end of the breezeway sits a set of heavy wood doors that open to the host's podium. Beyond, and upstairs, lay three dining areas, one of which was, once upon a time, the coveted Captain's Cabin.
The mood these days seems a little more relaxed, although the crowd is still stylish and the Captain's Cabin still exists. The interior design speaks in tones of elegance and, oddly, heat: starched linen table cloths and ceiling fans, plush carpeting and wicker chairs even in the main dining room. These cues might lead you to imagine that you're sweltering at the edge of a steamy jungle instead of wondering why you forgot to wear a scarf.
As the restaurant's name reminds us, Vietnam was a French colony for about a century, and executive chef Joseph Villanueva's fine menu captures glints of the resulting cross-cultural pollination. Among the most compelling examples of his ambidexterity are the pan-fried brussels sprouts ($10), or rau xao — all the dishes bear Vietnamese names — in which the halved sprouts are cooked with portobello mushrooms and plenty of ginger before being liberally slathered with sweet chili sauce. Using such intensely flavorful ingredients to subdue a notoriously uncooperative vegetable is the culinary equivalent of an enhanced interrogation technique, but when a confirmed brussels sprouts-hater takes a tentative taste or two (after much cajoling), then serves himself a big heap, we know all the bother was worth it.
Luckily, most of the menu doesn't need this kind of strong-arming. Wok-tossed Blue Lake beans ($8) are wonderfully crisp-tender and simply dressed with a garlic-soy sauce. Niman Ranch pork ribs ($14) are rubbed with five-spice powder, given a honey-ginger glaze, and roasted to an aching tenderness. The same glaze ends up on fried quail ($14), which is only marginally less tender. Among the lemongrass-inflected dishes, it would be hard to beat chicken two ways ($25), roasted and sautéed, and served with a warm salad of shiitakes, baby spinach, and micro-cilantro.
There are disappointments. The fresh rolls wrapped in rice paper are a little tough and, tastewise, on the delicate side. On the indelicate side, we have black tiger prawns ($29) in a coconut curry broth that sounds promising but is made with powdered curry, rather than the Thai-style paste, with a certain metallic harshness as a consequence.
But knocking a few points off a dish here and there does nothing to diminish the overall experience in a place as atmospheric as Le Colonial. As with a view restaurant, the temptation must be strong to lean on the enchanted setting and its storied past while letting the food and service discreetly slip. It's a credit to Le Colonial that if the restaurant served its menu in a setting a tenth as compelling, we would still judge it worthy.
Dinner: Sun.–Wed., 5:30–10 p.m.;
Thurs.–Sat., 5:30–11 p.m.
20 Cosmo Place, SF