Emma Campion, the cover designer of The Slanted Door: Modern Vietnamese Food is to be congratulated for her outstanding work. The contrast in texture between the gray flannel top and the smooth photographic bottom not only enhances the work visually, but also creates a contrast to the touch. The embossed titles further enhance the tactile experience. There are many cookbooks I like to read – a very few that inspire long study of food photography – but how many do I like to touch? Campion has gone beyond the boundaries of cookbook design to create a new sensory experience of the cookbook. She is a true innovator.
The interior design of the cookbook by Bullet Liongson, with its limited color palate, slightly desaturated color photos, black and whites, and cityscapes exemplifying a pervasive feeling of gray fog, suits the San Francisco bay-front location of The Slanted Door restaurant. The food photography may not pop, but it does blend into a cohesive whole. A food photographer myself, I am always interested in the photographers and techniques of food photography found in cookbooks. Photographer Ed Anderson, known for his work in My Paris Kitchen by David Lebovitz, has a gritty, masculine, street photojournalist style to his food shots and he is not afraid to show dirty pots and scuffed kitchen floors. His best work seems to be his beautiful landscapes and cityscapes of San Francisco.
As those of us who have written cookbooks for chefs and restaurants know, writing a cookbook is a full-time job and running a restaurant is a full-time job. No chef can do both and the wise ones, like Charles Phan, hire a specialist. Charles Phan made a good decision hiring Janny Hu. The recipes work and Hu successfully created a voice that I, for one, believe is that of Charles Phan. To sublimate one’s own personality and successfully translate that of Chef Phan’s into a voice is a true gift and Janny Hu has done well.
I began eating Vietnamese food in 1980 when the first Vietnamese restaurant opened in New Orleans to serve the some 20,000 Vietnamese located here after the fall of Saigon. I also included a number of Vietnamese restaurants in New Orleans Best Ethnic Restaurants, so I enjoyed exploring Charles Phan’s growth as a restaurateur and comparing it to what my local Vietnamese restaurant friends have done. Charles Phan primarily keeps to traditional Vietnamese dish preparation for his entrees and appetizers. A few of the dishes are more Vietnamese fusion than traditional Vietnamese and I find that they do not work as well as the traditional recipes which have had hundreds of years to develop a flavor profile. For desserts, Phan provides exquisite pastries in the tradition of the French occupation of Vietnam and forgoes the fruit-based desserts so often seen in local restaurants.
His two smartest moves as a restaurateur were to free himself from the tyranny of local soda distributors and his creation of a wine list and a spirits menu totally unrelated to Vietnam. Phan removed the soda guns from his restaurant – an action so without precedent in San Francisco restaurant history that the distributor was not sure what he meant. No well-known commercial sodas at The Slanted Door, rather hand squeezed juices, made to order and combined with small bottles of sparkling soda water in the tradition of Vietnamese soda chanh. Soda chanh, a combination of fresh squeezed lime juice, sugar and club soda, is one of my favorite drinks. Hiring an expert, wine wizard Mark Ellenbogen created the wine list for The Slanted Door. He found that low alcohol wines with some residual sugar and high acidity like a German Riesling worked with spicy Vietnamese dishes and concentrated on whites made from cool-weather grapes and reds with low tannin. For the spirits menu, the fresh squeezed juices of the non-alcoholic beverage menu was a natural springboard for fresh juice and homemade syrup based cocktails with an emphasis on tropical cocktails, extremely well done. The cocktail recipes include cute bits of info. One bit that I did not know is who drank the French 75 in the movie Casablanca. Read the book to find out.
Most impressive, however, is Charles Phan’s story of how he raised capital for his restaurants, avoided double-dealing landlords and used DIY skills to remodel and decorate his restaurants without the all too often amateur look resulting from DIY restaurant design. The Slanted Door provides a fascinating look into the evolution of a restaurant dynasty, some great recipes, some even better cocktail recipes and a romping fun read. If I were to be forced to find a drawback, it is that I would have enjoyed the book much more if I lived in San Francisco and knew Charles Phan personally – but there are always vacations. Traveling to San Francisco soon? Put this book on your to-read list and visit the restaurant while you are there. I know I will. – Ann Benoit