Vietnamese, but with meat. Very sophisticated food. Break out a quality French wine. Red Burgundy would be especially useful.
Bodega (website, 415-921-1218, on Larkin – two doors uphill from Eddy, medium-priced with a couple temptations to splurge) may sound like a noteworthy California seafood place. That’s actually Hayes St Grill, about eight blocks away (owned by the very talented food writer, and Stanford alumna, Patricia Untermann). When I tell you BoDeGa is a Vietnamese restaurant, you may immediately think of plates filled with vegetables. That’s not entirely untrue, but it’s helpful to know the translation from the Vietnamese language: Bo = beef; De = lamb; Ga = chicken. Vegans can eat at Bodega, but they can’t get uppity.
Let’s not mince words here. If you insist on ordering beer to drink with the food at Bodega, you’re a Philistine. The restaurant does have a pretty good wine list, but it never hurts to take a special bottle yourself.
Chef-owner Jimmie Kwok has an enviable résumé. He worked at some of San Francisco’s top hotel restaurants, and also several years with Il Fornaio. He describes Bodega as “cuisine Indochine” and, as befits Vietnam’s history, there is a considerable French influence to several of his dishes. Take the Tournedos for example. That would be filet Mignon and foie gras wrapped in bacon with a black truffle sauce. Better order them when you make your reservation. They sell out early. An older Syrah from Santa Barbara County would be a good match. Perhaps 1999 Qupé. But, for a 'standing O' from your dinner companions seek out a five- or six-year-old bottle of Stolpman La Croce (50-50 split of Syrah and Sangiovese fermented together).
On the more traditional side, Jimmie’s Pho (beef and noodle broth) includes a homeopathic dose of very strong rice wine. He also uses crispy egg noodles instead of rice noodles. Pho (pronounced ‘fuh,’ as in fun) is extremely popular restaurant food in Vietnam. It originated in the north around Hanoi, and dates from the French colonial period when beef started to become more widely eaten (by the occupiers), and beef bones became commonly available to make stock. The name may well derive from the French phrase pot au feu (‘pot on fire,’ a beef stew). Pho contains vegetables, like the French dish, but also roasted spices like ginger, and a wiff of fermented fish sauce (Nuoc mam). The Chinese were occupiers long before the French. Chiles, bean sprouts, and herbs like basil are served on-the-side with Pho, to be added as desired to individual spoonfuls. Hence the range of flavors turns out to be fairly broad.
I don’t know that we found the very best wine to accompany Pho, but I voted for Treana’s white Rhônish blend (Viognier and Marsanne grapes). The wine has a persimmon fruitiness modulated by a root-vegetable (let’s say parsnip) flavor characteristic, and a long mineral aftertaste. The wine is complex. It shows different facets at different times. Much like Pho. When Pho migrated to the south of Vietnam, in the middle of the last century, the more colorful southerners dressed it up, adding additional ingredients, additional flavors. The same thing is going to happen to grapes from the Rhône Valley now that they are migrating to California.
A number of appetizers at Bodega appear designed for Burgundies. The fried shrimp (Jimmie calls them crevettes frites) are dressed in a garlic lime drizzle. Both those and the crispy egg rolls (Cha gio) are great with six- or seven-year-old Meursault. Nem cua are rice paper wraps of crab meat and black mushrooms. They are examples of Hanoi street food. An Henri Gouges red Burgundy from Nuits St. Georges seemed just the right answer. Not too fruity, supple tannins, little bit of micro-biological funk, smoke and used tea-leaf smells, medium body, sour cherry flavors.
With a more fragrant red Burgundy, such as F. Magnien’s 1st cru Chambolles, the ideal pairing at Bodega is Chim quay (squab with carmelized onions and raisins). The dish is rich, and a little sweet, given the sugar from the onions browned on the bottom of the skillet and the cracklins’ nature of the squab skin. The meat has a full, round flavor with just the slightest hint of liverish backnote. The wine matches that flavor intensity, but relieves the weight of the dish with knife-edge acidity plus a lifted, rose-water and under-ripe Damson plum nose. Although there is none there, one anticipates sweetness in the wine because of the fruity aroma. Then the dish delivers. Both the wine and the food are wonderful on their own. Together they harmonize seamlessly to create an entirely new level of taste and smell sensation.
Don't go to Bodega Bistro alone. You are going to want to sample at least ten dishes. Teach your kids to share.
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