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THE 21ST CENTURY MEETS CHINATOWN

Restaurant Review

By Carol Peterson
Begoni Bistro
615 Jackson St.
San Francisco, CA 94111
415.757.0120
Open 7 days – 11-3 and 5-10

Walking in Chinatown recently, I noticed a chic new restaurant, one that with its contemporary ambience could have been transported next to Tadich Grill on California Street. Why was this classy looking place among the serviceable but generic hostelries of Chinatown? When I met Begoni’s Executive Chef Jimmy Kwok I found out. He told me he and his partner Ming Doung picked the location and design because “We wanted to stand out. We think Chinatown needs a fresh start.” According to Jimmy they have already made a difference. “Several restaurants are considering remodels after seeing us.”

Why the name Begoni? The word refers to a sea flower, and Jimmy thinks it reflects his cooking style which is rooted in Vietnamese and French cooking filtered through his own adaptations.

Jimmy learned cooking from his mother, starting at the age of 7. Living in Hanoi with the French, Jimmy would carry catered food to the international embassies. By 1977, under the communists, Hanoi was too dangerous for Jimmy, and he escaped by boat to Hong Kong, ending up in Philadelphia. Later, visiting San Francisco he never went back. He says, “I am on a permanent vacation after 30 years.”

The chic and pleasant ambience is only the start of the excellence at Begoni. At this family owned business, the ambience is friendly and welcoming. The food is special and promptly served. I have my favorites.

Of the appetizers, I was intrigued by the Green Papaya Salad with Beef Jerky (9), It is served in Hanoi style. That means, cutting back on the fish sauce and adding a unique ingredient–beef jerky. A hint of mint touches off this flavorful dish. Jimmy said, “The people of Hanoi enjoy this refreshing snack before they go to the theater or other outing.”

My favorite dish at Begoni (and it was not easy to pick a favorite) was the Roasted Squab (19). It was crispy, moist, juicy and succulent. I usually avoid ordering squab because many times it is dry. Not at Begoni. Jimmy’s secret is marinating the tiny fowl in salt, pepper and lime for four hours. Then it is roasted in a very hot oven for a short time and served over caramelized onions and golden raisins. The combination is a perfect mixture of ingredients and timing. The dip of lime, salt and pepper is simple but changes the taste immensely. This is a dish adequately shared by two people.

If chicken soup sounds like an uninspired choice, you haven’t tried Jimmy’s. He caramelizes onions, shallots, ginger and adds them to a pot of cold water that includes rice white wine, fish sauce and rock sugar (rock sugar because Jimmy only uses natural ingredients). The water is heated to boiling which incorporates the pungent flavors. The chicken is added (only free range), cooked for a short time and pulled out and deboned. The bones go into the broth, taken out and then chicken and noodles added. He tops it with a sprinkle of fresh herbs. The result is the most clear, subtle, chicken soup I have ever tasted. It is not busy. You could eat it every day and never tire of it.

Of the Vermicelli Salad Wraps, the Bun Cha Ca Thang Long (15) was excellent, full of special flavors. The herbed seared fillet of sole is served on a sizzling, island platter with sautéed dill, onion, peanuts and shallots and the unique flavoring of turmeric. The wrap is accompanied by a large platter of very fresh lettuce and fresh herbs so you can pick your choice of herbs to add when you make your wrap. Again the simple sauce of salt, pepper and fresh lime is perfect for dipping.

For vegetarians, Garlic Eggplant with Green Bean (8) is the right choice. The eggplant is sliced into long pieces and sautéed with sweet and sour bean sauce, garlic, ginger, chili and scallions. It’s a spicy dish and full of wonderful flavors.

If you are looking for a melt in your mouth meat dish, the Bo Luc Lac (19 Dinner) will not disappoint. Jimmy buys all of his products locally and this includes his meat from Golden Gate Meats. The filet minion is marinated in Worchester sauce, garlic, olive oil and herb de province, a preparation that underscores the French influence in his cooking. The meat is sliced into small chunks and sautéed with purple onions. The flavors of the succulent juicy tender meat dance on your tongue. Al dente Garlic noodles make the perfect addition.

The only dessert served at Begoni is a flan. At Begoni you don’t get the typical flan, with crunchy top and creamy custard. Instead their flan has a scrumptious, spongy texture and finishes with a beautiful vanilla sauce. Enjoy.

This new restaurant is the face of Chinatown’s future and Jimmy Kwok and the Duong family will be remembered as the people who had a vision.