Last Friday eight of us had a near three-hour celebratory lunch at the Slanted Door. This was my first time at the new temporary location after not trying the cooking for a couple years. The interior is fairly plan and stark, somewhat coffee shop-ish. The full bar is a nice enhancement, and there were many diners seated there. As a disclaimer, let me state upfront that my friend Mark Ellenbogen is the wine buyer at SD. He was in the house during our meal, so our experience may not be typical.
We asked our server to surprise us with a selection of dishes to be shared family-style, plus the shaking beef and the grapefruit salad that I wanted to try after reading recommendations on this board. Those two were as good as Stanley promised thank you! Also exceptional were the sweet corn with mushrooms (fresh morels?) and cha gio imperial rolls that were tightly wrapped and extra crackly with a multitude of tiny air bubbles in the deep-fried wrappers that lightened the effect. I did enjoy the appearance of different fresh mushrooms in some of the other dishes, but the rest still didnt rise above acceptable. These dishes (and Im improvising on the names since I didnt look at the menu) included rice vermicelli with chicken; green beans and mushrooms; sauteed prawns with green beans and mushrooms; claypot chicken with mostly overcooked coarse white meat and not enough carmelization; spring rolls that were outstandingly fresh and snappy but suffered from too much watery vermicelli in the center; and a green papaya salad that lacked focus.
Unlike Limsters experience (linked below), we had a better batting average on the desserts. Only one of the four was weak, a chocolate ganache-filled cookie sandwich-like thing that tasted grainy and pasty to me. The crème brulee was perfection, oh so silken and well-speckled with vanilla bean seeds under a nicely burnished crackly crust. We also liked the tiny, muffin-like madeleine flavored with ground nuts served with it. Also lovely was a milky almond jelly served with a scoop of papaya sorbet, a dice of fresh papaya, white tree ear fungi, a bit of mint, and a drizzle of light citrusy/tropical juice to add a note of tartness and unite the flavors. My favorite of the sweets, though, was the frozen soufflé of yogurt. The snowy white icy dome was a dimpled island in a rosy pool of tart/sweet strawberry and rhubarb compote. Frozen quite firm, it took some pressure on a spoon to break off a mouthful. Yet this solid mass melted away as soon as it hit the tongue, leaving only a faint echo of refreshing tanginess. My friend Oliver commented, brilliant, just brilliant, you taste it and then its disappears. What makes these two fruit-based desserts work so well is the fine acid balance that highlights the natural sweetness and makes them so refreshing. Very much in keeping with the simple, fresh aesthetic of Vietnamese cuisine even though these are not traditional.
As good as the desserts were, the real stars of this meal were the wines. The esoteric wine list here is truly a personal statement of Mark Ellenbogens tastes and what he thinks works best with the food. Its very amusing to read comments on usenet groups and the like that the wine list cant be good because it isnt laden with California cult cabs. While I do think that Mark should give non-adventurous customers a couple more familiar choices, I have to admire his guts in laying down the gauntlet with such an idiosyncratic list of obscure wines. Each of his selections is among the best of its type and theres no better place in the area to get an education in German and Austrian wine styles.
Coming off a four-day wine exam marathon, we had told each other that we were celebrating with cocktails, fine teas and beers. More wine was the last thing we wanted in the glass! Yet, when confronted with such a treasure chest of wine geek jewels, we could not resist.
First up was the NV Pierre Peters Blanc de Blanc Brut Champagne. A micro-grower champagne from the Grand Cru Le Mesnil in the Cote de Blancs, this must be one of the most underrated and underpriced bubblies in the world. A very fine minerally nose, beautiful bead, intense and vivid on the palate with green apple snap and citrusy notes, this carries long and clean with a minimal dosage of sweetness. One of my perennial favorites, the group liked it so much we polished off two bottles.
Then we chose the 2000 Nigl Piri Privat Grüner Veltliner from Austrias Kremstal region. While supposedly a difficult vintage in the area, we were blown away by the ripeness and concentration captured in this glass. The characteristic sweet pea, chalky minerals and white pepper notes of GV were there, but wrapped up in aromatic melon and tropical fruit too. Weighty and almost oily on the palate, my friend Jay commented that this was dealcoholized Viognier, and Id have to agree with him. Unusually powerful, yet held in check by bright acidity, this married particularly well with our vegetable dishes.
Our third selection was the 2000 Glatzer St. Laurent from Austrias Carnatum. This is a medium-bodied red wine from the St. Laurent grape that the Austrians are spreading rumors about being related to Pinot Noir (it really isnt) and there is some resemblance. More new oak on this than I would like, at least the spice and vanilla notes were well-integrated. Fat and succulent on entry, this was impressively extracted for such an inexpensive wine. Loaded with raspberry and red plum fruit kept fresh by juicy acid balance, the soft tannins were rounded and polished carrying through to a soft finish of moderate length. Very charming and gulpable.
With dessert, we ordered a couple stickies by the glass. The Roter Veltliner Beerenauslese (sorry, didnt see the vintage or producer) was my first experience with this rare Austrian grape variety, but this sample was a bit tired, perhaps from a bad bottle. The other was a 15-year old Madeira. I didnt catch the producer or the style, but I would guess it was Bual or Malmsey based on the sweetness and color. Very fragrant, harmonious and smooth on the palate with well-integrated spirits, the nutty and carmelly flavors and piercing acidity of the Madeira loved each of our desserts.
Our service may not be indicative, as our server seemed somewhat nervous and may have been extra attentive. She cringed when the first bottle of bubbly made a definite pop on being uncorked, and I promised her we wouldnt tell Mark. (g) Even so, we noticed that it seemed to take longer than it should between ordering wine and its appearance at the table. One of the group who is a regular at the restaurant said he had noticed this post-move too and postulated that the procedure for pulling wines may have changed since there is now a bartender and full bar. So, be advised to order wine at the same time as the food and not dally over the wine list.