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Three Seasons

Savor Three Seasons (And Leave Winter at Home)

Seasons change, even in perennially temperate San Francisco. Restaurants may change seasonally too, with a dramatic monsoon debut followed by a dry spell of ordinariness. A gourmet destination may run hot, lukewarm, then cold, fluctuating with the seasons -- from autumn's bountiful harvest to winter's hearty fare; to fresh spring greens marching into summer's outdoor sizzle.

Hung, the head chef, and Tessa Le, the manager of front operations, are the creative team behind Three Seasons, a hip Vietnamese hot spot that has flourished for almost four years in the trendster Marina District. Flying in the face of the Bay area's "mean and lean" seasonal downturn, they have opened two sister restaurants of the same name (in Palo Alto and Walnut Creek) to make it three in all. Three Seasons refers to the three seasons -- Fall, Spring and Summer -- in South Vietnam, and to the post-revolutionary film of the same name.

On a recent Wednesday night, the restaurant is packed full of youthful, convivial patrons in the dining 'know'. Three Seasons is basically one large room done in Asian minimalist style: bamboo accents, cloth tapestries, and light tropical woods. Since the entry is small, it's best to wait for a table in the back where the bar is located. Sake, wine, and beer are offered; the Roederer Brut by the glass ($8) refreshes and whets the palate like a summer rain.

Once we were seated in the middle of the room, the noise level seemed to increase by a few decibels. The din is noticeable due to the close configuration of tables in a single open area, but bearable unless you want a quiet place for intimate conversation. Small groups are happy here, especially weeknight noshers and family/friends visiting from out of town. On one side, there are high tables with green and red velvet chairs from which to survey the scene.

The menu consists of a wide variety of Vietnamese-style dishes, from spring rolls to satays, and from small and large plates to side dishes. Beginning with the fresh spring rice paper rolls, there is a wide selection: Marina rolls ($9), consisting of spicy ahi tuna, smoked salmon, and soy ginger vinaigrette; viper rolls ($9), with eel enveloped by Tare sauce, cheese and soy ginger; and duck rolls ($9) prepared Peking-style with mango and a cucumber hoisin sauce. Each roll is served in bite-sized pieces and blossoms with southern Asian flavors and crispy, succulent textures.

Enticed, we move on to the sea scallop satay accompanied by a curry peanut sauce ($10). The epitome of tender and plump, the scallops are skewered and lightly grilled. The chicken satay ($9) is a definite 'yes' on the menu; marinated in a spicy sweet sauce, the chicken is then flame-broiled to perfection. The Malaysian lamb loin satay ($9) in a five-spice marinade delights us with its balanced complexity of unusual flavors. The honey quail satay only intrigues; it is passed up to save room for the other courses coming our way.

The small plate of shrimp potstickers ($8) is not that memorable. The crispy scallop wontons are better, but not fantastic. The pork ribs in a tamarind and green onion sauce ($9) are worth the sticky fingers. The McMurray Pinot Gris ($26/$7.50) pairs nicely with the delicate array of oriental spices.

The big plates of shaking beef "Bo Luc Lac" ($13), Chilean sea bass ($19), and the NZ rack of lamb ($22) are the best items in this section. The beef is cubed and sautéed with a spicy garlic, green onion and black pepper rub. A favorite of ours, the sea bass is steamed with shitake mushrooms, ginger and lily buds. It is perfectly moist and matched with great earth and root tastes. The lamb rack comes grilled with Asian greens; covered in a Syrah veal stock reduction, it easily falls off the bone. Sides of Japanese eggplant and spicy green beans ($7) tantalize and nicely round out the composition.

But no composition reaches genuine completion without dessert. Hands down, the caramelized banana with coconut ice cream ($6) is utterly ambrosial! Imagine warm banana oozing with caramel layered over a cool nutty ice cream. The other (lesser) indulgence was a mango sorbet -- refreshingly tropical to the last spoonful.

So, to almost every season, we turn…and there is a reason to turn to Three Seasons either to avoid the winter blues, or to satisfy a hankering for tasty Eurasian. The service is friendly though young, but they attended to our needs with well-seasoned grace and competence. The food is worth circling around the Marina for a parking space, and the atmosphere is upbeat and playful.

Three Seasons
Contemporary Vietnamese