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Pan-Asian Cuisine in the FiDi

Dinner in the Financial District is usually a big-ticket, hopefully expensable, occasion -- the likes of Boulevard, Aqua, and One Market -- while affordable, low-key "neighborhood dining" alternatives seem as elusive as a certain one-horned mythical creature. That is until Unicorn Restaurant opened last fall. While dinner is an option and happy hour specials run throughout the week, lunch is when Unicorn, the sibling to Berkeley’s acclaimed pan-Asian outpost, is at its busiest.

Thirty-seven year old owner Kiet Truong is a native of Saigon, a veteran of the restaurant business going on 20 years, and the son of two professional chefs in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. In October 2007, he opened this San Francisco venue (the original is in Berkeley), which showcases a diverse, seasonal, often locally sourced, predominantly organic menu with a handful of not only vegetarian, but also vegan offerings.

The yellow, brown and red-hued space is Asian-inspired contemporary, and has two notable features. The first décor highlight is a set of communal tables boasting four-inch-thick slabs of reclaimed Indonesian Suar wood. These thousand-pound slabs are mounted on cylindrical river rocks for a stunning display of craftsmanship. The second is the red, 100-square-foot shower-curtain-like fixture (with a waterfall cascading down both sides) that separates the main dining room from the private room. There is a chic lounge towards the entrance lit by a dropped blown-glass chandelier.

Dinner highlights a few prix-fixe options, notably the Horn of Plenty ($17/person, two-person minimum) with a selection of rolls (taro spring rolls, mango spring rolls, chao zhou rolls (pork, shrimp, jicama), and imperial rolls), broiled lemongrass mussels, roasted lemongrass quail and salt-and-pepper prawns with a filet of cuttlefish. There are other options too, a five-dish land course ($26), four-dish sea course ($27/person) and a six-dish vegan course ($19/person).

On our visit one stormy night, we found that the Dungeness crab soup ($7) -- hearty flakes of crabmeat swimming in a puree of asparagus-cognac reduction -- hit the spot. The ubiquitous prawn spring rolls ($8) that we sampled were standard, yet got a boost from the peanut sauce’s extra kick.

Moving on to the land and sea mains, we opted for the charbroiled lemongrass chicken and vegetables ($13) and the spicy mango bean curd with Chinese eggplant ($12). The chicken came to our table as a whole, intact (albeit boneless) chicken breast resting on top of sautéed vegetables, which seemed a bit untraditional and made family-style dining more challenging than if the dish had been presented as a stir fry with bite-sized chunks of chicken.

Awkwardness doesn’t stop at presentation, however; while the staff are very hospitable, you get the sense that they don't quite realize that they are in direct competition with the knowing, savvy hospitality veterans working at the downtown big guns and hot neighborhood spots around town. There is a definite upscale suburban feel to Unicorn, as if you could just as easily be dining in San Jose's Santana Row or even in the new Westfield Center in San Francisco.

The most unique dish of our meal was the not-so-spicy, spicy mango bean curd and eggplant. The outstanding part: the bean curd tasted carnivorous. While the owner assured us that it was vegan, the texture, weight and flavor of the bean curd was meatier than meat itself. In fact, it was so meaty that Kiet recounted the numerous times that diners have responded in disbelief to his persistent assurances that the bean curd is not animal-based.

From the sea, the butterfish in banana leaf ($19) is fast-becoming Unicorn’s signature dish, and thanks to its melt-in-your-mouth qualities, this is a must-order. The giant sea scallops ($17), however, is a dish that we might not get again. While tasty -- the three jumbo scallops rested in a coconut wasabi cream with unagi emulsion -- the scallops would’ve benefited from a simpler preparation.

For dessert, the fried banana bonbons and warm chocolate torte were enticing, but we opted for the healthier ginger pear poached in port (all desserts $6). It was a refreshing closer to an altogether solid, but not quite stellar, meal.

Pan Asian
Financial District

Reservations not needed.