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Spice Grill: E&O Trading Company
Serves up the cuisine of an Asia without borders
by SFS Staff on Jan 01, 1999
Only a few years ago, it seemed as if the culinary world was dividing and parceling itself in the manner of the former Yugoslavia or Los Angeles county. Call it the first wave of reaction to the global villagization, or the last stand of identity politics, but for a few years in the mid-nineties, every cuisine, if not every dish, seemed intent on carving out its rightful historical place on your palate. Try me, cried each restaurant, I am the true flavor of Vietnam (or Provence or Lebanon or Northern Chile). And why not? The successful assimilation of Thai food promised every formerly unknown regional flavor that it too could be the Next Big Take-Out Food.
But after awhile, we diners tired of eating meals inspired by the rich bounty of some obscure Himalayan mountain plateau or eastern European hamlet. Authentic or not, I don't want to eat fried yak. Shocked as some may be, food critics (and we San Franciscans all are, to some extent) do enjoy Big Macs and pommes frites when our tolerance for coal-roasted Yellow River bamboo runs low. So perhaps China's annexation of Hong Kong should have given us cause for culinary prediction instead of economic panic; everything these days is being reabsorbed.
My apprehensions about the restaurant Indigo a few months back were a bit premature. I silently cursed it for grouping together all the flavors of the Western Hemisphere under the bland moniker of "New American" -- it seemed to do a great injustice to all the individual cultures within it. Looking back, it's easy to see that culinary transition periods are difficult. Our taste buds are fickle and need even more time to become acclimated to new sensations than their stomach-centered owners do.
Walking into the E & O (Eastern and Oriental) Trading Company shortly after its late summer debut, I was shocked by how quickly I took to the Marco Polo-esque atmosphere. Suddenly, I was fantasizing about taking over the majority of Asia in some sort of neo-colonial sweep. Sure the decor is kitschy, but what isn't in late nineties California culture? It's very Pirates of the Caribbean and at the same time very Jackie Chan. The long "dragon" bar decorated, of course, with the requisite bamboo, ferns, and pretty boy double-earringed bartenders, snakes along the right side of the lower dining room ending just short of a food bar lining the exhibition kitchen. Lanterns dangle precariously from the high ceilings. Still a bit hesitant about the whole pan-Asian motif, I played it coy with a vodka cran rather than a Singapore Sling. I was three quarters of the way through my highball that I noticed that everybody else was drinking beer from what appeared to be oversized pousse-cafe glasses.
It wasn't until I was seated that I was informed by our drinks waiter that the third (basement) floor housed a microbrewery (as if San Francisco is running short on them) and thus, beer was the house specialty. After scanning the wine list and debating with my dining partner, I reconciled myself to foregoing the usual spice friendly Gewurtztraminer for E & O's light, citrusy wheat beer. When in Shanghai, and all that. Served with a decorative slice of lemon (no, I didn't squeeze), it wasn't half-bad seeing as how I usually hate beer. My partner's Honey Blonde Ale was even better -- breezy, light, and closer to a soft riesling than to an Anchor Steam. Both were more alcoholic than I expected, and served in oversized glasses to boot. Be careful.
The menu is more a pan-Asian rally than a melting pot; it features a lot of Japanese this and Thai that as opposed to the more common indistinct cultural marriages offered at nominally similar restaurants like The House or Betelnut. We started with a Lamb Nan (around four bucks) with a thick crust well-suited to the slightly greasy lamb. The charred beef satay on sugar cane is slightly sweet, as one might expect, but is saved by an earthy peanut dipping sauce which was generic but flavorful. I preferred the spicy minced seafood satay to the beef, which with a strong halibut flavor and quasi-gefilte fish consistency escaped the cat food connotations suggested by its name. Skip the Thai crepe small plate, however, which reminded me of a food court pork stir fry trapped in a latke.
After ordering a tasting menu of the other house beers, my partner and I both decided on the Nut Brown Lager to go with our entrees. Earthy and bold with hints of molasses and spice, it married nicely with our entrees which, somewhat to their detriment, tended to be too sweet. The seafood green curry with calamari, shrimp, rockfish and mussels was excellent, even if the curry itself lacked depth or a spicy edge. The fruity skirt steak found a nice counterpoint in the vinegary slaw and mango salsa. The portions were small considering the price (between fifteen and twenty dollars), which was fine for my visit since I had stuffed myself s.pling appetizers.
Still, one always finds room for dessert. We tried the Thai coffee mousse, which was attractively composed in various brown tones and accompanied by a scattering of espresso beans and a spice based syrup. Unfortunately, given the overall sweet tendencies of the other parts of the meal, the mousse was a bit off-putting. More appropriate was the panna cotta, an Italian cream-based custard reminiscent of flan. I'm not sure I consider Italy either Eastern or Oriental, but its inclusion in the menu is a welcome Marco Polo-inspired reminder of a time when cultures merely shared rather than fused.
E&O Trading Company
314 Sutter Street
(between Grant & Stockton)
11:30 am - 11:00 pm
by SFS Staff on Jan 01, 1999