In the '70s this city led the country into a food revolution. Then the '80s came along and San Francisco sat back and watched the revolution rush past. As other cities eagerly experimented with new ideas, discovered new cuisines, tasted, tried and generally stirred up a passion, San Francisco slumped to a standstill. Good restaurants here continued to be wonderful, but when you asked "What's new?" the answer invariably was "Not much."
Now we've hit the '90s, and it looks as if San Francisco is on the move again. While the rest of the country continues to spawn copy-cat restaurants, bringing us more pasta, more blendo cuisine, more 8,000-ingredient concoctions on the cutting edge of nothing, San Francisco has just given birth to two true originals.
One is in the city, one is in the country. One is cozy, one is cool. Their inspirations come from continents separated by many miles and many oceans. The two restaurants, in fact, could hardly be more different. They are, however, alike in two respects: each serves absolutely delicious food and neither is like any other restaurant in any other place.
The best roast chicken I have ever eaten was cooked by Bruce Cost in an ordinary kitchen stove. "What did you do?" I asked, munching on the crisp skin, savoring the succulent flesh, licking my fingers. "Nothing," he said. "I just rubbed it with a little soy sauce to give the skin color and threw it into the oven. I didn't even put it in a pan."
"You must have done something different," I protested.
"Well," he admitted. "I bought a really good bird in Chinatown. And I figured out exactly how long it needed to cook. It was nothing."
It's the sort of nothing that makes Cost's new restaurant so extraordinary. All he does is start with the very best ingredients and cook them for the exact right amount of time. The result is Asian food unlike any you have ever tasted in this country.
I first tasted Cost's cooking when he moved to San Francisco 10 years ago. Cost had studied cooking for years with the legendary Virginia Lee--and he did her proud. I particularly remember fresh bacon which had been stuffed with a mixture of chopped pork and pinenuts, quickly fried and then slowly cooked in a mixture of rock sugar and spices. It was the richest dish I'd ever eaten. We became friends, and over the years I ate dozens of meals cooked by Cost. One was better than the next: he is a man who was born to cook. Meanwhile, he wrote cookbooks (he's currently working on "How to Steam a Bear," a translation of what is probably the world's oldest cookbook with Chinese scholar Don Harper), gave cooking lessons--and put off people who pestered him to open a restaurant.
Frankly, I wasn't sure it was such a great idea. Being a cook is one thing; running a restaurant is another. But somebody eventually made Cost an offer he couldn't refuse; he enlisted architect Mark Mack to design the ultramodern room, and Monsoon opened in November.
It has been a smashing success. The San Francisco critics are nuts about the place. And no wonder--this food sparkles with freshness and flavor. Whether Cost is cooking classic Chinese recipes (whole steamed catfish with scallions, ginger and black beans), or Thai-inspired dishes of his own invention (fresh egg noodles with Asian pesto), the result is food that is truly seductive.
You've had shrimp toast in Chinese restaurants before; it was not like this--crisp, golden, and so light it could float right off the plate. An antipasto platter offers pungent pieces of tea-smoked squab; bracingly spicy Thai seafood salad; sweet, dense, garlicky hand-pulled eggplant; a startlingly simple mixture of poached chicken breast, daikon and jellyfish; and an unusual salad made of quickly cooked watercress that has been chopped and lightly dressed with sesame oil.
I once asked Cost how he selected fish in a Chinese market. He replied: "I just buy what's most expensive. The difference between a cheap fish and an expensive one is invariably worth the extra money." Try the fish of the day, simply steamed. Or taste the way an ordinary sea scallop can be improved when mixed with chopped fresh water chestnuts--a surprising crunch next to the silkiness of the shellfish--and bathed in a spicy coconut curry sauce with a little touch of pork.
Spareribs in Tianjin black vinegar are little tidbits to eat with your fingers. Whole crab is finger food too--and particularly appealing in a sauce that contains black beans, ginger, eggs and pork. If sugar pea shoots are available when you visit, be sure to try them. They are the essence of what this restaurant is about: the very best ingredients treated with enormous respect.
Cost is convinced that beer is the only drink for Chinese food, but he's put together a lovely list of wines for those of us who don't agree. And although he isn't much interested in dessert, he knows that the rest of us are. So he hired a pastry chef from Chez Panisse, David Lebovitz, who seems to be having a wonderful time playing around in the kitchen. He's invented a whole range of sweets that are the perfect ending to an Asian meal. They include an exotic tirami su (with rum, coconut custard, tropical fruits) , persimmon pudding and a new take on the classic Japanese coffee jelly.
There is also an inspired list of teas. And another list of coffees. Caffe latte may seem strange in a Chinese restaurant--but that's the point. Monsoon isn't an ordinary Chinese restaurant. It isn't an East-West or pan-Asian restaurant either. Monsoon is not, in fact, like any restaurant you've ever been in. It's a true new San Francisco original.
Monsoon, 601 Van Ness Ave. (in Opera Plaza), San Francisco. (415) 441-3232. Dinner for 2, food only, $35-$90.