The List: Eating Vietnamese, Drinking German at San Francisco’s the Slanted Door

Courtesy of The Slanted Door

Chef Charles Phan’s Vietnamese flagship is the greatest place in the country to learn how to pair Vietnamese cuisine with wine.

Those of us who knew San Francisco back in the day—the psychedelic ’60s, the freewheeling gay ’70s, the bratty contact-jam ’80s, which was my main era—might mourn the city we loved before the dot-coms deleted much of the city’s bohemia. But we can sometimes feel okay about San Francisco’s, um, maturity when we go out to eat because, among restaurants, there are certain oldsters that have grown up with the city. And, despite the fact that much of San Francisco’s historic liveliness has been pushed eastward over the Bay Bridge, we can relax amid the gracious surroundings of these still-vital places and enjoy our adulthood. Like us, these are restaurants that put their best faces on, no matter how middle-aged we’ve all become. One of them is the legendary Zuni Cafe, which, at 36 years old, keeps chugging along with the most satisfying comfort food in the universe.

Another is the Slanted Door. Chef Charles Phan’s Vietnamese flagship has grown in 20 years from a small, earthy storefront in the Mission to the 200-seat anchor of the Ferry Building—downtown San Francisco’s foodie amusement park—with an open kitchen, outdoor seating, and sweeping views of the harbor. But the restaurant’s DNA has not changed; the food is still excellent, and it’s still the greatest place in the country to learn how to pair Vietnamese cuisine with wine.

Of course, that means the list here is filled with German and Austrian whites. As Mark Ellenbogen, the Slanted Door’s original wine director, discovered back in the day, these wines—German rieslings, Austrian grüner veltliners—have the sweetness and the acidity to balance and meet the complex flavors of Phan’s food, without too much alcohol getting in the way.

Ellenbogen’s list looked pretty weird to diners expecting the broad-shouldered cabs and butter-ball chards of ’90s-era California. After all, the restaurant’s signature dish was made with filet of beef. But stir-fry that filet with a boatload of alliums in plenty of fish sauce, and serve it on watercress with a lime dipping sauce as Phan does, and that 100-point Parker-sanctified cabernet you insisted upon would make your meal taste like a mouthful of metal.

No, Phan’s citrusy, funky, umami-packed shaking beef doesn’t want tannins and loads of alcohol and ripe fruit. It wants a dry wine that will cut the fat of the filet and the butter it’s cooked in—a wine with the bitterness, too, to match the beef’s leafy bed and its citric bath, yet one with a fragrance to mingle as equals with the pungency of the rice vinegar, mirin, soy, and fish sauce in the dish.

I drank that wine with the shaking beef (pictured below) at the Slanted Door recently, and interestingly enough, it was a Californian. But it wasn’t a cabernet. It was a chenin blanc from the Santa Ynez Valley, near Santa Barbara. Habit Jurassic Park Vineyard Chenin Blanc 2013 smelled of petrol-soaked honey blossom, tasted laced with bitter herbs, and scoured my palate with minerality—all in a good way.

That wine revealed how the Slanted Door’s list has evolved under current wine director Chaylee Priete (pictured above). She has kept Ellenbogen’s good bones intact: the German/Austrian focus, the dedication to environmentally friendly winemaking, and the helpful categorization by flavor profile: “aromatic & dry whites,” “herbal & dry whites,” “delicate reds,” and so on. But she’s fleshed them out with new varieties and regions. With locals like that chenin blanc making the cut, the evolution of California wine itself is apparent: The state’s wine industry had to mature past its bombastic 1990s to turn out bottles deft enough to keep company with the food at the Slanted Door.

“So many of our foods are difficult to pair with wines, period,” Priete admitted. But when we sat down to eat together, pair them she did, with a quirky but exacting sensibility. With the Slanted Door dish I most pine for, Dungeness crab with cellophane noodles, she served a wine that she declared “gum droppy.” A sip of Marco Carpineti Capolemole Bianco 2013 and I knew what she meant. Made with two white grapes from Lazio—a juicy suspect called bellone abetted by an herbaceous-tasting rarity called greco moro—the wine had the flavor of spearmint gum drops. You wouldn’t think it would work, but it did. Attractively bitter, it set my palate straight after each slippery bite of unctuous noodle and rich crab.

Otherwise, the meal was dominated by able-bodied Germans and Austrians. Leitz Dragonstone Riesling QbA 2013, a bargain at $10 a glass, was generous enough on both residual sugar and acidity to carry opposites from the raw bar. Its acid tempered the fattiness of the yellowtail topped with crisp-fried shallots, and its sugar buddied up to the coconut and mango in the fluke and scallop ceviche. Brundlmäyer L&T Grüner Veltliner 2013 had the Meyer lemon panache to partner with a sweet-tart grapefruit and jicama salad dotted with candied pecans. And its hint of astringency highlighted the aromatic beauty of the salad’s best touch: julienned coriander leaves. Zahel Orangetraube 2013, a Viennese white, danced a flowery, fresh little dance with the mint in the spring rolls.

Zingy acid, heady florals, zesty and bitter herbs—the wines and food in general share these qualities at the Slanted Door. (And where the dishes dive into richness or pungency, the minerality of the wines balances things out.) Priete, an East Bay mom of one-year-old twins she had to get back to, made an early exit. Yes, we’re all adults now. But I acted like a kid anyway and demanded my dessert: Feiler-Artinger Muscat Ottonel Ruster Ausbruch 2004. The wine tasted deliciously like an orange tree smells in the hot sun: citrus-bright and, also, sweet and rotten from the fallen fruit. It was incomparable—until I tried the winter citrus trifle with it. The wine and the trifle tasted one and the same.

The Slanted Door; 1 Ferry Building; 415-861-8032.

Images Courtesy of The Slanted Door.