Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Sunflower: Not So Sunny

Sunflower: Not So Sunny                              

I really hated it when Le Soliel closed down. As soon as it opened, I liked the food much better than Sunflower, its matrimonial parent. I thought husband put out better food than wife (the competing owners were once hubby and bride). They split and he left to open Le Soleil while she remained at Sunflower. I also much preferred the generous elbow room at Le Soliel, not to mention seeing a welcoming smile and having someone treat me in a reasonably civil manner.

So about a month ago R and I were on a Vietnamese food-craving jag, and I decided to give Sunflower another try. I had not been there in years; not since hubby opened Le Soleil, as a matter of fact. We made a point of going late afternoon when it would be the least crowded, and thankfully, there was only one other table there when we arrived. The menu hadn’t changed, nor had the layout; tables are crammed uncomfortably close together. If you hunker down, you can have a private conversation but you’ll also know what all your neighboring diners are discussing. You’ll get brushed up against by servers and anyone trying to get to or leave their table. The place is a space violator.

Chicken salad 

The food has slipped. We started with a chicken salad (# 21) and noticed one thing right off the bat. The salad was tight-fisted with the chicken and very lightly dressed; the tiny dish of nuoc cham they brought with it was barely enough for that dish, much less the remainder of the meal.  It’s fish sauce, water, sugar, and a little lime juice for crissakes. Even though we had requested to get our four dishes in two courses, the remainder all came out at once. We were trying to avoid the clutter of three dishes, and all their side dishes coming all at once. Two tables in the joint, one of which had finished, and they couldn't accommodate that simple request.


Green beans with tofu in spicy sauce

Bo Luc Lac

Green bean and tofu with spicy sauce (#88) was fine; I ordered it mostly as a nod toward some vegetables.  Shaking beef (Bo Luc Lac, # 34), whose flavor used to explode with every tender bite, was underwhelming. The chunks of beef were of a lesser cut and not as tender; the flavor punch was lacking and the cubes looked lonely on the plate. Grilled pork meatballs (Nem nuong, # 14), was underseasoned and cooked too long, making the balls dense and tough in the wrapper. Even with some herbs wrapped inside the rice papers and a shallow dunk in what little nuoc cham remained, they couldn’t be resurrected.

Nem Nuong

If I come in and drop 40+ bucks for 2 people, the least you can do is smile and thank me for coming. The angry but bored expression on the woman checking us out did not change the entire time I was paying out. Luckily I knew that you had to go up to the counter to pay, or we would probably still be sitting there. Just me, but if I had a restaurant with limited floor space, I’d be dropping checks and politely hustling people out the door so I could turn more tables. I’d also appreciate my patrons.

The impression I was left with is that they were allowing us to come eat their food. Back in the day, the abuse of hostile service in an uncomfortably cramped space was worth it, because their food was really good. Now, not so much.

If you want to make your own shaking beef, here’s a great recipe Art and I developed that will be far superior to Sunflower’s:

Shaking Beef -- Bo Luc Lac

Serves 8 as an appetizer  (3 ounces of beef per person), or 3 to 4 as an entree
This warm beef salad gets its colorful name from the action of the beef cubes as they dance in the sizzling oil in the skillet. It is a dish seldom found on Vietnamese restaurants menus in the U.S., and illustrates the French influence on the cuisine of Vietnam by the use of olive oil. In Vietnam this dish is most often served at home as an evening appetizer to accompany drinks, with a small dish of mixed salt and pepper accompanying, to which lemon or lime juice has been added, for dipping the beef cubes.

1 pound lean rib eye or sirloin steak, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 stalk (bottom half) lemongrass, sliced very thin, chopped very finely in an electric spice 
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon chile paste, e.g. sambal oelek, or similar
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon fish sauce (nuoc mam)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon vegetable oil

For the Salad:
1 large sweet onion, halved, paper-thin slices (1015Y onions, or similar, are preferred)
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
2 garlic cloves, minced or shaved finely
Sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cups watercress, rinsed, drained, heavy stems removed

Advance Preparation
1, Combine the lemon grass, soy sauce, chile paste, garlic, fish sauce, sugar and 2 teaspoons of the vegetable oil. Mix well.
2. Place the beef cubes in a resealable plastic bag and pour the marinade over the beef cubes, toss well, and allow to marinate for 1 hour.
3. Marinate the onions in the vinegar, sugar, garlic, black pepper and olive oil. Allow the onions to marinate for 1 hour.

Cooking Method
4. Heat the remaining 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil in a small skillet over medium high heat. Add the remaining 2 cloves of garlic and sauté seconds.
5. Add the beef cubes with their marinade. Sauté quickly, searing the outside. Cook medium rare.

6. Toss the watercress with the onion mixture. Pour the hot beef with the pan juices over the watercress salad and serve immediately. Accompany with a small side dish of equal amounts of finely ground sea salt and black pepper to which a small amount of fresh lime or lemon juice has been added.

Eat the cubes with the salad, dipping the cubes into the seasoning mixture.

Chef Notes- Be careful not to burn the garlic when cooking the beef. Add the hot beef immediately before service to prevent the watercress from wilting. Beef or lamb tenderloin may be substituted for the beef ribeye, if seared only to the point of rare. Pork tenderloin may be substituted for the beef if cooked to the point of medium. Any lettuce or green can be substituted for the watercress, but frisee or curly endive will match the peppery flavor.

Mick Vann ©

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