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Friday, July 28, 2006

Dining Notes: Sister Restaurants Edition

The concept of the sister restaurant has long intrigued me.   When the owners of a successful establishment decide to expand to a new location, how do they determine whether to open an exact replica of the first place or to open a related, but not identical, restaurant instead?   If the latter route is chosen, how does one decide the degree of overlap between the two establishments?   And does it go without saying that the second restaurant will perform as well as the original?   These questions were on my mind when I recently had the opportunity to dine a handful of times at two pairs of sister restaurants that span the Palo Alto to San Francisco divide:   Evvia and Kokkari, and Tamarine and Bong Su.

San Francisco's Kokkari and Bong Su represent a break from tradition.   In the past, restaurant owners would typically prove a concept in the San Francisco market and then bring an identical copy down to Palo Alto.   Il Fornaio, MacArthur Park, Scott's Seafood, and Straits are all good examples.   With Kokkari and Bong Su, however, it was establishments that were initially proven in Palo Alto that gave rise to related, but not identical, restaurants in San Francisco.   And while it's too soon to call this reverse migration a trend, I'll be curious to see whether others -- such as the relatively new Palo Alto restaurant Junnoon -- follow suit.

Evvia & Kokkari

It was no more than a few months after I joined my current law firm in late 1996 that Evvia earned a spot on my list of favorite Bay Area restaurants.   Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I had just spent two glorious weeks traveling through Greece before starting my new job;   maybe it didn't.   But the delicious and authentic Greek cuisine served at Evvia had an immediate impact on me, and the fact that the restaurant was just down the street from my office was an unexpected bonus.   Since those early days, my colleagues and I have visited the restaurant far too many times to count, and it long ago became our de facto destination for special occasion lunches -- be it for welcoming new colleagues, bidding farewell to existing ones, or celebrating birthdays, promotions and holidays.   And remarkably, as I look back upon the innumerable meals that I've had at Evvia over the past decade, I can honestly say that not a single one has left me unsatisfied.
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There's one dish at Evvia that particularly stands out in my book, and that is the Horiatiki or Greek salad.   Crisp cucumbers, tomatoes, green peppers, red onions and olives are tossed with tangy feta cheese, olive oil, oregano, salt, and a touch of vinegar.   The result is not only spectacular, it's an authentic version of the village salad served in tavernas found scattered across the Greek isles.   Another can't miss appetizer is the Tzatziki -- a creamy yogurt and cucumber dip served with soft wedges of delicious pita bread.   Evvia is known for its various lamb entrees, and the Arnisia Paidakia (lamb chops) and Lamb Souvlaki, in particular, are outstanding.   The Chicken & Mushroom Pita -- which, despite the name, contains no pita bread and is instead a spinach pie with chicken and mushrooms added -- is excellent, as is the Chicken Kabob (although I must confess that I enjoyed it more when it was served with wild rice rather than the arugula that accompanies it today).   Desserts are all quite good, but the Baklava and Galaktoboureko -- vanilla semolina custard wrapped in phyllo dough -- are personal favorites.   The atmosphere at Evvia is relaxed, and the service is generally efficient and professional.   It's no surprise, then, that Evvia remains my favorite restaurant in Palo Alto to this day.

When the news came out in late 1998 that the owners of Evvia were opening a sister restaurant in San Francisco called Kokkari, I was thrilled.   After all, the only thing better than having a restaurant like Evvia close to my office would be having a comparable restaurant close to my San Francisco home as well.   A few weeks after Kokkari opened, I grabbed a friend and headed to the restaurant for dinner.   A quick review of the menu was promising;   many of my Evvia favorites -- including the Greek Salad -- had survived the trip north, while the offerings that were unique to Kokkari were built upon familiar themes.   By the end of the evening, however, I was gravely disappointed;   the food was poorly executed, the service was uneven, and the overall experience was a far cry from that offered by Evvia.

I have returned to Kokkari four times in the years since that first meal, most recently just a few weeks ago.   On each occasion, I have gone in hoping that my first visit was an anomaly, and I have come out convinced that it was not.   My last dinner at the restaurant included the Bizelosalata (bruschetta with fava beans that were grossly undercooked), the Makaronia me Horta (uninspired feta cheese ravioli featuring the same raw favas), and a Rotisserie Lamb Special (comprised of one pound of fat and bones and one ounce of edible meat).   The kitchen even screwed up my beloved Horiatiki;   a pool of olive oil simply sat below a pile of undressed cucumbers, and none of the ingredients were even remotely integrated.   As I left Kokkari that night, I concluded -- once and for all -- that Evvia is, by far, the better restaurant.

Tamarine & Bong Su

My first two meals at Palo Alto's Tamarine -- both shortly after it opened in late 2002 -- were disappointing.   To be fair, the decor was nice, the service was acceptable, and the food was fine.   But nothing about the overall experience was great, and it really needed to be given the rather high price point of the restaurant.   And so, in time, Tamarine was slowly pushed off my list of dining options.   If I wanted decent Vietnamese food in Palo Alto, I would go to the more reasonably priced Three Seasons;   and if I wanted something more upscale, I would go to Evvia.

I was finally drawn back to Tamarine about three months ago, when a departing colleague picked the restaurant as the site for her farewell lunch.   I was pleasantly surprised by what I found.   Virtually every dish we ordered was well-executed, much better than what I remembered from my early experiences there.   And on two subsequent visits, our meals were equally enjoyable.   Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that the food was at the levels found at The Slanted Door or anything, nor am I saying that the restaurant was suddenly spectacular in my book.   But for the price point and for Palo Alto, Tamarine now struck me as an attractive option, a clear step ahead of most of its peninsula competitors.

Tamarine offers a fairly wide array of appetizers, including the somewhat conventional but still enjoyable Tuna Tartare, mixed with cucumber and chili and served with wonton chips, and Salt & Pepper Calamari, served with a delicious cilantro emulsion dipping sauce.   There are also two noodle dishes worth mentioning here, namely the Wok Pho Noodles served with Chinese broccoli, beef and eggs, and the Tamarine Crab & Garlic Noodles comprised of mung bean noodles, Dungeness crab, garlic and peppercorns.   While the latter is quite tasty, I feel compelled to note that The Slanted Door's Cellophane Noodles with Dungeness Crab still reigns supreme.   With regard to entrees, it's hard to go wrong with the Shaking Beef, the Lemongrass Bass, the Tamarine Prawns, or the Mango Tilapia, while the Curried Long Beans and Black Bean Asparagus are good vegetable side dishes to round out the meal.   The kitchen offers a variety of single-serving flavored rices, of which I would readily recommend the Coconut Rice (flavored with coconut and vanilla), the Hainan Rice (chicken stock, ginger, and garlic), and the Empress Rice (garlic, leeks, ginger and egg).   Desserts are generally good, with the Warm Chocolate Cake being a perennial favorite.   Service is friendly, and the decor is nicely done.

My first dinner at Bong Su was right around the time that I "rediscovered" Tamarine, and I have since dined at the restaurant two more times.   Overall, I've been favorably impressed.   The menu plainly continues the theme started by Tamarine, and there are several points of overlap.   And while it's probably too soon to draw any definitive conclusions, my experience so far leaves me with the suspicion that Bong Su may be performing at a level slightly higher than its Palo Alto precursor.

Among Bong Su's starters, the Goi Kampachi is one of my favorites, with five thin slices of the delicate fish served sashimi style with a chili-lime sauce and slices of jalapeno.   Crab & Garlic Noodles, a crossover dish from Tamarine, is another good choice, while the Duck Mustard Wraps and Shrimp Cupcakes -- though fine -- are far from extraordinary.   The entrees I've tried have all been very good, but the Caramelized Black Cod and the Hokkaido Scallop Curry were truly outstanding.   The former consists of tender fish bathed in a delicious caramel sauce, while the latter has a green curry that can give the best Thai restaurants in town a real run for their money.   Lemongrass Bass and Hoisin Lamb Chops are also excellent main course options.   The flavored rices at Bong Su seem to be spiced slightly differently than at Tamarine (the Hainan Rice, for example, is described as having star anise instead of garlic), but I am here again a fan of the Coconut Rice, the Hainan Rice, and the Empress Rice.   Desserts are well done, but I have yet to try anything that struck me as spectacular.   The Lemongrass Ginger Creme Brulee had a pleasant flavor (though a bit heavy on the ginger), while the Black Sesame Banana Beignets consisted of tasty banana fritters, black sesame ice cream, and a chocolate dipping sauce.

Service at Bong Su is helpful and attentive, and the atmosphere is serene and refined -- an amazing transformation from the days when the space housed Max's Diner.   Indeed, the setting is such a welcome departure from the insanity that The Slanted Door has now become -- i.e., attitude-filled host staff, middling service, eardrum-shattering noise-levels -- that I have to say I would happily choose a dinner at Bong Su over one at The Slanted Door, even though the food at the latter still outperforms that at the former.


For reliable cuisine near my office in Palo Alto, Evvia and Tamarine will undoubtedly continue to be my destinations of choice.   And for very good Vietnamese food in San Francisco that is served in pleasant surroundings, Bong Su is well on its way to becoming a new favorite.   As for Kokkari, well, I've now had enough meals there to conclude that there's little reason for me to return.   But I guess three out of four isn't bad.


Blogger K & S said...

bummer about Kokkari, but like you said 3 out of 4 isn't too bad.

July 28, 2006 5:06 AM  
Anonymous Tana said...

I really want to get to Evvia, ever since we tasted Chef Michael Dotson's lamb prosciutto at the Certified Humane press conference I attended. He ran circles around all the other chefs in the room...what talent. And a nice man, too, not a hotdog. (So to speak.)

The problem with sister restaurants is that they don't have sister chefs.


July 28, 2006 11:32 AM  
Blogger NS said...

Kat: It baffles me why Kokkari seems to be so far behind Evvia, even on relatively simple things like executing a Greek salad. How hard can that be once you have the recipe?!

Tana: You raise an excellent point; when the attention of any executive chef gets spread out over two restaurants instead of one, the risk of a slip in quality -- at one or both establishments -- necessarily goes up. The key, I suppose, is to recruit additional kitchen talent who can uphold the standards of the founding chef. That, I am sure, is easier said than done.

July 28, 2006 2:37 PM  
Blogger K & S said...

you are right, if they already have a great recipe, why not use it at their sister restaurant? apparently the left hand is not speaking to the right hand....

July 31, 2006 8:34 PM  

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