My copy of the new cookbook "The Slanted Door: Modern Vietnamese Food" is already thumbed and sauce-splattered. Charles Phan's first book, "Vietnamese Home Cooking" (2012), is terrific, but this is the book we've been waiting for, the one that collects the recipes from the various iterations of the beloved San Francisco restaurant.
The Slanted Door started out in a modest location in the Mission District in 1995 and moved a couple of times before landing at its current glam site at the Ferry Plaza Market Building with views of the San Francisco Bay in 2004. It's always busy, with astonishingly consistent cooking and an innovative wine list. Even after 20 years, the Slanted Door is California's top-grossing, independently owned restaurant.
In its design, "The Slanted Door" (Ten Speed Press, 2014, $40), the new cookbook from that restaurant kitchen, organizes the recipes chronologically. The food photography by Ed Anderson is suitably gorgeous, but other shots of the restaurant and staff sometimes look as if they were lifted from a corporate brochure.
Why does every chef feel he needs a weighty coffee table tome? This one is dwarfed by some others I could name, but please, chefs, give us a book we can cook from, not just look at.
Fortunately, "The Slanted Door" is both, packed with thrilling, clearly written recipes for such famed Slanted Door dishes as chive cakes, vegetarian Imperial rolls, Vietnamese chicken salad, and spicy squid salad with Chinese celery. I've made Hainan chicken from Phan's grandmother's hometown of Hainan, China. I know I'll be making the poached chicken and its pungent dipping sauce all my life.
I’ve tried Phan's Shaking Beef recipe. But to really duplicate the dish, you need to find some organic, grass-fed beef from Uruguay. I keep going back to another classic from Phan’s kitchen, grilled rack of lamb with tamarind sauce. Here's the recipe.
GRILLED RACK OF LAMB WITH TAMARIND SAUCE
Adapted from "The Slanted Door: Modern Vietnamese Food" by Charles Phan. Note: This recipe has not been tested by our Test Kitchen. Serves 4.
Author's note: In Vietnam, rack of lamb is a very unusual cut. More often you're served the entire loin, without the bones. Still, serving an elegant rack of lamb seemed fitting when we moved to the Ferry Building. Following the British tradition of serving lamb with mint jelly, we created a sweet tamarind sauce to counter the gaminess of the meat.
4 stalks lemongrass
4 shallots, coarsely chopped
2 Thai chiles, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 rack of lamb, frenched and cut into 2-bone chops (about 2 pounds total)
1/2 pound peeled tamarind pods or 1/4 pound tamarind paste
3/4 cup boiling water
1/2 cup sugar, or to taste
2 tablespoons fish sauce, or to taste
1 teaspoon lime juice, or to taste (optional)
1. To make the marinade, trim the lemongrass, leaving only the bottom 5 to 6 inches of the stalks, and peel away the outer layers, leaving only the tender stalks. Slice thinly into rings and finely mince. Combine the lemongrass, shallots, chiles, sugar, fish sauce, and oil in the bowl of a food processor. Process until the mixture is finely minced. Alternatively, use a knife to mince the shallots and chiles together. Combine the sugar, fish sauce, and oil in a bowl and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Add the lemongrass and the shallot and chile mixture to the liquid and mix well.
2. Place the chops in a bowl and pour the marinade over. Cover and refrigerate for about 2 hours.
3. Meanwhile, make the sauce. Soak the tamarind pods or paste in the boiling water, stirring and mashing until soft, about 10 minutes. If you use pods, press the pulp through a medium-mesh strainer, removing the seeds. Stir in the sugar and fish sauce. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more sugar or fish sauce if necessary. The sauce can be made a day or two ahead of time and kept refrigerated. Just before serving, add a little water or lime juice if necessary to thin it out, and reheat.
4. An hour before you are ready to cook, set up a charcoal grill for grilling over high heat on one
side and low heat on the other side. Grill the lamb, starting over the hot part of the grill, until the chops are caramelized, about 8 minutes on each side, then move to the cooler side of the grill. Continue grilling until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the meat reads 125 degrees F to 130 degrees F for rare, about 10 to 15 minutes total, or 130 degrees F to 135 degrees F for medium-rare. Let the meat rest for 5 to 8 minutes and serve with the warm tamarind sauce alongside.