There’s always that moment just before sitting down at The Slanted Door, that light feeling that rises like hunger in my chest, the floating excitement of knowing there’s nowhere else on the planet I’d rather be–and the thrilling relief of having arrived.
My first trip here was with my family–it was lunch and I remember the space more than anything, at the edge of the docks, wrapped in glass, filled with midday light. We had braised Japanese eggplant, and praised the Japanese eggplant.
Next trip was just before Thanksgiving, at dusk– with Sara and Grant, old swim teammates. After spending our childhoods mostly underwater together, then scattering ourselves across the country, we were all three at the water’s edge again, dry and warmly dressed. We had shaking beef, and green papaya.
On my 23rd birthday I had a dinner at Slanted Door, courtesy of Mom and Dad. Friends swarmed from Palo Alto and Berkeley. Binbin ordered the cone of duck.
That spring, Smita came through for a visit. We wandered in at lunch and got a seat at the bar, where they served us the green papaya–a familiar dish, a simple food, which at the tip of Charles Phan’s knife seemed to slip away from gravity and hover, in orbit, as a pure substance. Peanuts, diced nearly to a flour; shallots, fried crisp; “limber” strips of carrots, flexing gracefully to touch their toes.
My most recent trip was with Sam; and the excitement set in as we stepped inside, into the somehow cool perfumes of lime, cilantro, hot white rice. We didn’t have a reservation or really even a plan to eat there, but after the exhausting Fisher show at MoMA we found our toes at the entrance to the Ferry Building and quickly said yes to a short wait for a table outside. I didn’t know there were tables outside; these were in a narrow strip along the restaurant’s sea-facing wall sheltered by a glass partition and warmed by space heaters against the blustering bay winds. The partitions must have been strangely soundproof–there were some young women nibbling bao on a bench just on the other side but we were mostly unaware of their presence… until I became fixated on the bao, and something they had with a dipping sauce…
I zipped up my jacket and ordered. Daikon cakes and green papaya to start (two favorites for old times’ sake) and yuba with mushroom and glass noodles and a chicken claypot (for something new) to follow.
You might think this is a recipe for disappointment, ordering with such nostalgic and superlative-laden expectations of simple dishes–but everything was more exciting than ever. The daikon rice cakes married flat with flashy: snow-white and humble turnip within; crisp, cracking shell sizzling in a salty slick of vinegar+soy beneath. Green papaya, brilliant and pleasing as always.
The yuba was a must-order, being the current star on 101cookbooks (in a green curry soup.) I had never eaten yuba, but somewhere on the interweb I saw it called “tofu sashimi,” which turned out to be an accurate description of this tofu byproduct the NYT called “sexy, sophisticated and elegant.” In a bed of glass noodles and mushrooms, it made good on its luxurious and seductive reputation.
(I was shocked and a little embarrassed to realize, after thinking harder and asking around, that yuba is essentially fu jook, bar none my worst childhood food memory. Maybe I have to give FJ a second chance; or maybe this is the chasm between fresh and dried, Japan and China, 2010 and 1988.)
Last, not least, the steaming claypot–served just as the afternoon took a turn for the chilly. Beautiful, nourishing, life-affirming. Our lunch was a brisk sail through the harbor on that gleaming ship, in a stiff breeze that carried the scent of lime trees and wood-roasted clams up and over the cold grey sea.