I was listening to Russell Peters on Sirius radio the other day. It was a replay of his classic rant on arranged marriages. I thought a little about it and tried to imagine being in that situation. In a universe filled with energy flow and frequencies, I can’t imagine being attached to a woman who would nag me about my food desires, affinity for a pint or the fact that I sit up at weird hours documenting the trials and tribulations of my culinary journals while watching HBO shows.
That said, it was at that point that I realized I have had an experience almost as excruciating…the “arranged lunch”. Let me explain. While in San Francisco, I sent out a general invite offering to bring any of my colleague’s customers out for lunch. I had a few bites and arranged to bring out a group. I had no idea who they were but figured lunch at the Slanted Door, the well established Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco’s pier would be a safe call. I met the first of the four at the convention centre for a walk to the pier. I had met her once before so it wasn’t hard to strum up some conversation. We arrived at the rather large and very busy restaurant about twenty minutes later. It has a wide open concept with tables offering various views including the kitchen and bay areas. The rest of my group hadn’t arrived yet, so we waited by the door (I never noticed if it was slanted or not) so we could be seated. Much like a blind date, I watched people stroll in trying to predict who I’d be meeting. Finally, three ladies walked in who seemed to the fit the bill. After some quick introductions, we were seated around the corner in a half circular booth against the wall.
I’ll be the first to admit the menu is a bit long but these ladies made it look like they were reading the bible. The scowls and whispers trying to identify any dishes somewhat recognizable. I quickly realized the extent of their Asian experience was limited to chicken balls and fried rice. My fears were further confirmed when the table seemed either confused or appalled when the waiter suggested we order family style. To avoid further hardship, we agreed to choose a dish each. My dreams of trying some of the more innovative offerings of the James Beard recognized iconic eatery was going up in smoke.
In addition, my guests continued to make various observations including the fact that most of the waitstaff were males and they need more women on the floor. Nothing like a gender equality talk to spice things up. That said, I did find the service a little arrogant.
The scowls continued when we were notified that diet coke was not a menu option. The non-alcoholic drinks mainly consisted of spritzers and juices. So, a couple of them ordered lemonade. I had a a ginger soda.
I decided to be a bit greedy and order the gulf shrimp and pork wonton soup ($7) to start. I don’t think anybody cared. After all, the combination of seafood and pork might have thrown things into array. Fragrant, light broth housed noodles and dumplings which were tender and perfectly cooked. It was a large bowl but didn’t care much that I didn’t have to share.
The vegetarian rolls ($12) served with peanut sauce were stuffed with mushroom, tofu and cabbage. They hit the mark although nothing spectacular but seemed to be acceptable at the table.
The grilled organic chicken with vermicelli ($16) was one of the safer bets on the menu so I wasn’t surprised to see it ordered. It went pretty fast but I did manage to get a bite or two. Nicely seasoned and nicely cooked but once again, nothing remarkable.
Sticking with the safe poultry theme, we also had lemongrass chicken ($18). A few mumbles about the spice levels circulated the table but I found it had a nice level of heat.
The woman I walked over with ordered the trout served with green mango and a chili sauce. It was easily the best dish of the meal. The fish was moist and the accompaniments were a great contrast.
My choice was the cellophane noodle with dungeness crab ($20). Very disappointing. I probably could have had all the crab in the dish on a tablespoon. It was so torn up that the pieces looked like specks in the abundant heap of noodles.
Vegetables included boy choy and snowpeas (each $11) from local farms. They were fresh, simple and nicely prepared.
Slanted door is likely the most well known Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco. It’s location and reputation makes it a popular destination for lunch and dinner. Personally, I found it a bit overpriced for very good but not spectacular food. The lack of crab in a San Francisco restaurant overlooking the ocean is the ultimate and sad irony.
In the end, I don’t recommend arranged dining, especially at a place that revolves around family style dining. I walked back to the convention centre with the first woman I met and couldn’t help but ask if that was the most painful dining experience she ever endured. She enthusiastically agreed and I felt a little better. If the success of “It’s just lunch” or other dating sites hinged on a dining experience like this, there’d be a lot more single people in the world.