When I was first contacted by a representative for Straits and Sino Restaurants to try their street food menu, I immediately flashed back to my less than stellar experience at Straits in Santana Row a few years ago. Recall that I said "it was straight up bad" and that "many Asian people [don't] expect Asian fusion to taste very good, but we would also appreciate if it didn't taste very bad." I had left the restaurant very hungry and had to buy a croissant and eat a banana I brought in my purse. Yes, I carried bananas around in my purse back then. This girl has a fear of being hungry. Since then, I have had authentic Thai street food and would dare say my standards for good Asian street food are even higher now and did I really want to go back to Straits to challenge that?
The answer is yes, I did want to give Straits a second chance. I chose to dine at their San Francisco location just to try a different location than I had before. My date was Sherry, who has a deliciously undiscovered food and design blog and who has also been guest blogging for me in my absence.
Straits is in the large multi-story Westfield Mall that houses the Powell Street BART station, Nordstrom and Bloomingdales. I arrived 30 minutes late to my reservation, stressed out because
- I was late.
- I sat in traffic from my house to BART in Millbrae (still waiting for that promised BART extension to the South Bay, where is it?)
- I sat on a longer than it needed to be BART ride to San Francisco.
Feeling pretty disgruntled and kind of regretting why I chose the San Francisco location instead of Santana Row, I settled in after being graciously seated and given welcoming attention from the hostess, waiter and restaurant manager.
($3.50) Passion fruit iced tea - This tasted just like iced tea with a very slight hint of passion fruit. It was unsweetened and you are given sugar to sweeten as you please. I thought it was too subtle and wished for a more fruity and exotic taste.
I forget the name of this drink. It had ginger syrup, muddled cucumber, elderflower liquer, and another type of alcohol (vodka?). For the most part it was ok, until we tasted salt at the end. That was a little strange. I doubt we would order this one again.
($10) Vietnamese beef carpaccio - seared filet mignon, frisee, sweet chili vinaigrette, truffle oil. This caught my attention first because it's Vietnamese. That sweet chili vinaigrette is too sour. I'm not sure if red wine vinegar was in it but that's what I tasted too much of. The beef was fresh and thinly sliced. Capers, I always love those and frisee, I never mind it. But the vinaigrette needs some adjustments.
($10) Murtabak - roti prata stuffed with minced beef and served with a yellow curry dip. FANTASTIC! This was one of the two top things we ordered that night. Roti prata is always good. The yellow curry dip was really tasty and well balanced, not salty like last time. It really really reminds me of one of my favorite foods in New York, this Chinese fried bread stuffed with minced meat and vegetables - a little sweet, a little savory, dipped in a creamy curry sauce. mmm
Excuse the bad focus of the pictures, I am still learning the DSLR quirks.
($12) Banana Blossom Salad - banana blossom, grilled chicken breast, Asian pears, Vietnamese vinaigrette. I love banana blossom in bun bo hue, and Sherry has never had it before so we were both excited for this dish. My first impression was that there was too much chicken in the salad. Why sell it as banana blossom when mostly what you taste is pear and large chunks of plain chicken? However, a forkful of banana blossom and Asian pear together is super good. Banana blossom is slightly tart but really doesn't have much taste. It has a unique texture like soft lemon grass or imagine thinly sliced fennel - that type of texture. Then the Asian pear in the dressing brings an acidic balance to the tartness. By the end of the salad, I made a complete 180 and really loved it. I'm going to make myself a banana blossom and Asian pear salad one day, sans chicken breast.
($13) Coconut fried rice - rice, prawns, vegetables, coconut, and chili oil. This dish would have been better without the chili oil. The first few seconds before the chili hits the back of your throat are sweet and tasty. Mild coconut flavor. Good texture, not too wet, not too dry. But then the chili comes into play and it sort ruins things. I was disappointed, I thought this one would be a big hit. Huge and fresh prawns though. That was the best part. I also noticed overuse of thickly sliced pickled red onions as a garnish and I didn't really like that. They don't belong on every dish, like this fried rice.
(Market price but on the website, it says $35) Origami seabass - baked seabass with shitake mushroom, ginger, rice wine. This was baked "en papillote" which is baking with parchment paper. I just looked that up but at dinner, I had no clue and thought this was just a pretentious way of serving food in a folded paper box. Despite its mediocre presentation, this was the best thing we ate all night. The fish was really buttery and melts in your mouth. There was no tamarind in the seasoning but somehow it reminded me tamarind. The best part was, Sherry, someone who grew up with one of the best Asian home cooks - her dad - claimed this was the best Asian fish she has ever had at a Western restaurant. Then I brought the leftovers home for my husband who also grew up with another great Chinese cook, his mom. Even served at room temperature, he thought this fish was good enough to rival his mom's home steamed fish. Just looking at the picture reminds me of how buttery and soft it was. A must try for all!
The service was good and I don't think this was because I was invited to review either. Our waiter Alex was very friendly. Many of the things we ordered were his suggestions and they turned out to be a big hit.
Portions were larger than I expected except for the seabass but it was meant to be paired with rice or noodles. I realize that in my last visit to Straits, I was younger and restrained by budget so I chose very safe choices like mee goreng noodles and roti prata. Now I realize that the whole concept of Asian fusion is about mixing boundaries and pairing unlikely foods. The banana blossom and Asian pear combo is new to me and an envelope pusher. But it really worked and now I want to make it at home. Asian fusion can also mean a mixing of techniques such as baking in parchment paper for what is normally a classic steamed fish dish.
For the patron willing to spend a higher price on Asian fusion food, I recommend ordering something out of the ordinary at Straits. Don't just stick to what you know. Try it with a twist. Order something that sounds so off the wall, it might just work. You may end up with minced meat in bread, salad made of banana blossom, or fish in a paper box and you'll love it.
While Sherry and I did received this complimentary meal, I gave my honest opinions in this review. As you can see, I didn't like everything but I am giving a fair gauge of what a diner of my purchasing power would gain from this experience.