BEYOND PAD THAI: GRAND PU BAH'S UPSCALE EXPERIMENT
by Michael Bauer
When I saw someone had named his restaurant Grand Pu Bah, my first reaction was to roll my eyes, reminded of a "Flintstones" cartoon. Yet, putting aside my first impression and doing a quick drive-by convinced me it was a destination worth serious consideration.
Both the decor and imaginative Thai food belie the kitschy name, which supposedly means "great, crazy crab." The restaurant, in a newly constructed building in the design district around Division and Rhode Island, has an interior that's fun and sleek. It's a sophisticated blend of hanging silk lanterns, die-cut walls resembling coral lit from beneath, cream-colored flagstone accent walls, a large bar that attracts design center workers and the sort of open kitchen not generally found in Bay Area Asian restaurants.
Its modern sensibility parallels the menu crafted by John Reyna, who previously worked as a sous chef at Bong Su. The food is billed as Thai beach cuisine, emphasizing sustainable seafood and a full-service oyster bar. However, a large section of the menu is labeled "Thai street food," including expected items such as basil chicken, curry and among the best stir-fried green beans I've had. They're tossed with garlic and chili sauce and cooked until blistered and then combined with either tofu or chicken ($10).
While not every combination shines, even the unsuccessful dishes show that the kitchen is trying to think beyond the boilerplate version of pad Thai. In fact, the less-familiar combinations often outshine the standards.
The impressive oyster bar often features five varieties displayed on mounds of ice set up next to the cocktail bar defined by a glowing wall of bottles. Each order (price varies) is presented on crushed ice with wedges of lemon, accompanied by a half dozen toppings: chili sauce, spicy lime garlic dipping sauce, kaffir lime granita, sriracha sorbet, an Asian hot sauce and fried shallots.
What sounds like a boring dish, Golden Carrot ($6), is actually a star. Carrots are shredded, battered, fried to a golden turn and stacked on a hammock-shaped wood rack, with a sauce of lime, cucumbers and peanuts. Sweet, sour, spicy, crunchy and warm all come together in this one humble dish, showing off the chef's ability to balance flavors.
Reyna takes liberties with classics. The samosas ($7), for example, filled with curried Yukon gold potatoes, have the texture of really good puff pastry. Grapefruit salad ($8) is tossed with roasted coconuts and toasted pine nuts and accompanied by a small pile of crispy noodles so diners can spoon the ingredients onto the accompanying butter lettuce leaves and eat them out of hand. The vinaigrette gives the seemingly mild salad an explosive flavor.
One of the most stylish appetizers is the GPB Blissanova ($8); the owners obviously have a sense of humor. It consists of thin grilled slices of beef wrapped around marinated carrots and daikon, with puddles of creamy wasabi between. Reyna also reinterprets the traditional Thai beef salad ($9), arranging slices of grilled New York steak in a circle and surrounding them with watercress and mint, with a fish sauce vinaigrette.
I'm impressed with the way the kitchen fries, particularly the whole tai snapper ($25 for a 1-pound fish). It's served with the head on, but the flesh is partially removed from the bone and fanned like wings, with a warm garlic brown rice and mango salad on top. A spicy lime dipping sauce that takes on a creamy texture from extra-virgin olive oil completes the dish admirably.
Braised lamb shoulder ($14) has a bistro sensibility. The round slab of meat, fork-tender and infused with a mild, sweet flavor, is topped with thin slices of mint-marinated cucumber and crispy chips of plantain, all resting on a bed of polenta flavored with lemongrass. The chef also uses Western techniques on the pan-seared halibut ($17), accenting it with a Port ginger sauce and a puff pastry tart filled with Thai eggplant.
Dish after dish shows creativity. The organic pork short ribs ($15) are braised in a five-spice mixture, and accompanied by tamarind apple chutney and spears of fried okra. Slices of still-pink duck breast ($16) are draped over a delicious scallion potato cake, surrounded by orange-accented panang sauce.
The more classic combinations are well done, too, particularly the soups: a sweet but balanced version of tom kha ($6) with coconut, lemon-grass, galangal, kaffir lime, mushrooms and chicken; and tom yum, a hot and sour broth with some of the same flavorings but a much clearer citrus-like effect.
A tendency at many Thai restaurants these days is to emphasize sweetness, but fortunately only a few dishes at Grand Pu Bah suffer that fate. One that does, though, is the spicy sweet-and-sour taro ($13) with bell peppers, onions, grilled broccoli and shiitake mushrooms, where the sweetness rendered the other ingredients one-dimensional.
To enjoy the meal, ask the waiters to pace the order, or everything may arrive at once. Waiters are pleasant and helpful, describing the combinations and determining the spice level each diner can tolerate. However, it was so noisy it was hard to understand them. On two occasions, the waiters gave verbal descriptions instead of bringing the menu; on another visit, we got the check even though no one had asked if we wanted dessert. It's too bad, because other than that, the staff is good.
On one visit, I could have sworn our waiter said the chocolate sorbet would take about 15 minutes to make. They were obviously made to order, I reasoned, so I was surprised to be served a chocolate souffle ($10), even though the timing for that made more sense. The souffle was good, but tasted more like the molten chocolate cake served at LuLu and other places. However, the dessert staff under Dennis Leung makes its own ice cream: a Singha beer flavor that's served with fried bananas, pineapple ginger caramel sauce and cashew coconut brittle ($8). He also makes creme brulee ($8) flavored with Thai iced tea and cinnamon, and traditional mango sticky rice ($8) accompanied by a tom kha sorbet, which evokes flavors of the soup.
It may sound strange, but the combination comes off very well. With a name like Grand Pu Bah, you have to work twice as hard to be taken seriously.
FOR A 360-DEGREE
view of the restaurant,
The Wine List
Diners who have tasted the well-crafted cocktails at Range will probably be bellying up to the bar at Grand Pu Bah, where Carlos Yturria now manages the bar and designed the esoteric wine list.
Yturria's concocted the Bah Bah Noom, with Hendrick's gin, Thai chile, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and lime juice, and the Southern Breeze with Bulleit bourbon, apple basil and lemon juice (all $9).
The wine list includes some out-of-the-mainstream labels that go well with Asian cuisine. On the 16-item by-the-glass list ($8-$9), he offers varietals such as Tocai Friuliano, Gruner Veltliner, Albarino, Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Viognier. White wines dominate - consider the 2006 Bokisch Albarino from Lodi ($28) - and reds are generally on the softer side, with such selections as the 2005 Flowers Sonoma Pinot Noir ($87).
Markups are inconsistent, and the list is riddled with misspellings, but for a great deal, try the Spanish 2005 Don Olegario Albarino ($25). The 2006 Heidi Schrock Furmint from Austria is an interesting wine, but with a higher markup at $49.
There's also an extensive spirits list, with 11 rums, 10 ryes, 22 tequilas and 16 Scotches.
Corkage is $15.
The best thing that ever happened to his career was getting fired from his job in a hotel kitchen as a 19-year-old culinary student, says Seamus Cronin, who is as Irish as his name implies.
Actually, the tall, dark-haired young man, now executive chef and co-owner of Enrico's on San Francisco's Broadway, was already a veteran by that time. He got his first job at age 13 (then the legal minimum age for working in Ireland) when he was hired to bus glasses at a pub during the annual weeklong horse-racing festival that swelled the population of his native town of Listowel in County Kerry from about 4,000 to 25,000.
After the festival was over, Cronin kept coming around to the pub on weekends, asking if they had any work for him. More often than not, they did, and the money was more than welcome for the youngest of six children. By the time he was in high school, he was getting kitchen work at banquets, first peeling potatoes and eventually moving up to prepping meat and fish. At 18, he enrolled in a culinary school that alternated six months of schoolwork and six months of interning at restaurants over a two-year period.
It was during that time that a grumpy executive fired him for having the audacity to turn the same-old, same-old chicken legs served at staff meals into a curry. The manager of the property couldn't undo the firing, but he liked Cronin and referred him to another establishment owned by the same company, which was a fancier and more agreeable place to work.
"I learned so much there," the chef recalled over a lunch of sizzling spicy prawns, pad thai and curried chicken ("I always liked sweet and spicy dishes") at one of his favorite off-duty hangouts in San Francisco, the whimsically named Grand Pu Bah near South Beach.
The stylish restaurant with interesting, sleek decor is close to Cronin's South of Market apartment. As he points out: Parking is easy at night, the food features an imaginative take on classic Asian dishes, the staff is efficient and friendly, and the prices are easy on the wallet. What's not to like?
Cronin prefers distinctive ethnic places for his eating-out forays - and he eats out a lot. "My refrigerator is so empty, it's embarrassing for a chef," he admits, with an impish grin. Being an owner as well as a chef leaves little time for anything else, including the various sports he played as a youngster. An avid fan of the Trojans and the Giants, he tries to fit some games into his schedule.
Now 31, Cronin is well acquainted with San Francisco because his father worked here for a number of years. Starting at age 12, he would often come over during summer vacations. His parents, now retired, eventually returned to Ireland, but most of their brood of six, plus assorted uncles, aunts and cousins, came to the United States, many to the Bay Area. "I have a lot of family here," says Cronin, whose brogue has dwindled to a trace.
Cronin has a long relationship with the family of his Enrico's partner, Christina Deeb of the Deeb clan, which at one time or another operated many restaurants in the Bay Area, among them the Nob Hill Cafe, Le Bistrot, Bambuddha Lounge and Venticello Ristorante, where Cronin cooked for more than nine years. After he got that job, he discovered that he already knew his boss' family. On a summer visit here, he bused dishes at the Irish Cultural Center, where Deeb's Irish mother, Carol, worked at the time.
Cronin is proud of his Irish heritage, but he is not a professional Irishman. "People don't even think I am Irish," he confides with a laugh. "They think we are all paunchy little redheads."
His professional cooking isn't ethnic, either. Enrico's menu is resolutely American, with some influences of the French cuisine he was trained in and the Italian cooking he did at Venticello.
But surely he will offer corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick's Day? Probably not, he says quickly, and then, on second thought, "Well, maybe."
His mom fixed cabbage and bacon almost every Saturday for midday dinner (Sundays it was roast chicken, and Friday was family request night). Cabbage and Irish bacon, which resembles Canadian bacon, is the traditional combination, Cronin reports.
"You want to know where I ate corned beef and cabbage for the first time?" he asks. "When I came to the United States."
Grand Pu Bah: 88 Division St., San Francisco; (415) 255-8188.
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily.
Prices: Appetizers and salads, $6-$10; lunch entrees mostly $10-$13. Dinner-only entrees to $17.
Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/01/18/PK5RUC2DB.DTL#ixzz0RbiY4nQw
Drink Therapy: Buck Oysters and a Crush of Liquored-Up Designers
Friday, Aug. 28 2009 @ 1:00PM
|The Grand Pu Bah: Trust us, the guys behind the bar have heard all the Flintstones jokes.
The name's ridic ( it means "great, crazy crab," apparently, which, if you think about it, is even more absurd than "Grand Pu Bah"), but the place feels suave and design-y, all hushed lighting, hanging silk lanterns, and glowing bar. Happy hour (3-6:30 p.m.), it fills with designer types from nearby SFDC, folks who, while they might not think twice about ringing up $300-a-yard upholstery fabric, are all over a buck-oyster deal when they see one. That's right: you can get $1 select oysters from the crushed-ice pyramid near the bar, as well as $2 off cocktails and beers. While that's not the cheapest drink deal in town (regular cocktail prices clock in around $10), you never know: Get all flirty with the right liquored-up designer, and it might just lead to a discount on some sweet Anne Sacks tile. Worth a try, anyway.
The Grand Pu Bah 88 Division (at Henry Adams), 255-8188