Nothing like warm light, hot company and bohemian chic food on a chilly San Francisco night.
Since catching up with an addictive personality is critical, the location of conversation comes secondary. For what matters is the tug of war between LA’s laid back + fit + high fashion + dismal food life, and San Fran’s luxe bites + free spirit + sordid glam scene. Nonetheless I was led to the epicenter of Cow Hollow’s thriving social jungle, thus stepping foot into the redness of Betelnut.
Malaysian descent and Asian prowess aside, Chef Alexander Ong’s history of Ritz-Carlton and other culinary gems made his take on Asian chic cuisine quite alluring. While slightly kitsch on the outside with staple Chinese lanterns casting a Red-Light-District style light on the glass tiled entrance, the bar and exclusive back room were slightly better with streamlined table accents and minimalistic design. An expansive mirror behind the rows of tables gave the positive illusion of space, and served as for the melting pot of photography, gaping, flirting and makeup.
Everything was baked in a red glow, which would have matched better with sparkling white tablecloths or a Middle Eastern atmosphere with speckled glass mirrors. The juxtaposition with wooden tables and dark cutlery was not a bad one, and perhaps quite seductive to a certain degree, barring the tropical umbrella that accompanied our cocktails.
The pineapple cocktail was inviting, refreshing and definitely spun a kick, complete with minty greens encapsulated in black bamboo style holders. The grapefruit one was on steroids, with enough booze to knock out one’s senses and dignity, which I valiantly consumed to prevent the damsel from distress. We shortly moved to eyeing the playful menu, complete with suggestive callouts like “be daring this time” or the aptly titled “seductive starters”. (In retrospect, the last time I heard starters instead of appetizers jolted memories of a teenage life across the Atlantic).
Betelnut’s specialty was first on our palettes: the crispy cauliflower, glazed with tribal salt and pepper. And how crispy it was! While I could have done with less oil that puddled towards the bottom of a stone bowl, the crunchy texture and earthy tones of this dish made it palatable. Not to mention the bursts of spicy flavor as we discovered that there was more than crackling cauliflower to this dish, like hot pepper! The vegetable flavor was still prevalent, but eventually overshadowed by the fried residue as we got to the bottom of this bottomless pit.
The Szechuan green beans and asparagus were particularly delightful, as the preparation had not devoured the natural flavors entirely, but accented them with a spicy and sweet sauce with visible pepper flakes and finely chopped sautéed veggies. It was perfectly salty, soy and what I thought was tamarind infused sauce The best accompaniment to the freshness of veggies is something that elevates the taste, not replaces it. In this case, I could happily enjoy my healthy greens and bitter asparagus.
The dumplings were very heavily stuffed and truly earned their name as happy Buddha dumplings, as their very shape brought a smile to the face. Sun chokes and soy vinegar sauce made them a bit too sour though, and the swim through the frying pan didn’t save their derrieres from a prominent, slick coating either. Even the interior was rather indecipherable. Cuteness aside, I helped myself to more of the greens instead, enticed by the crunch factor.
The lady sipped up her Penang rice noodles, where the shrimp kept me away but the sprouts, chives and chili soy enticed to take a slurp. While not wildly creative, the flavors were spicy without being deadly, rich without being oily, and herb-infused without being bitter.
And the saga continued, as conversations flowed on and pictures were clicked and cocktails were inhaled like air. On the single paged dessert menu, each item was cleverly priced at $8.88 akin to the Asian style triple 8 luck premonition.
I have never quite been fond of East Asian desserts (the sticky rice and overdose of mango simply don’t gel with my lust for chocolate), and the overall slippery slimy texture has always reminded me of forgotten memories. Yet, this one was an intriguing menu, with a chef style twist and Asian flair on even the most common of desserts. We settled with the chocolate lava cake with almond sesame cookies and peach white miso ice cream. Three fragments to a dessert that married well on paper, and while visually sound, were more like 3 balloons at the wrong party. Pretty to pose with, but definitely en route to a misstep.
The chocolate lava cake was anything but – with a crater-like depression in the center and doused with confectioner’s sugar, it had an alarmingly sweet exterior, and while the interior was promising with the right notes of cacao taste, the center had zero lava. A volcano that didn’t erupt, and perhaps never existed. The sesame almond cookies were chewy, with slightly crispier-than-desired butts. And yet, the crunchy sesame paired well with the raw almond flavor that came through quite distinctly. The best pick was the ice cream, a refreshing marriage of peach and miso, tasting almost like a cinnamon but with undertones of a tart fruit. The good thing with such flavor combinations is that they are never to dense or heavy. They almost feel like a teatime supplement rather than a dessert, and are thankfully a far cry from cloyingly sweet ice cream that whisks kids into supermarkets.
And so ended an evening bathed in gossip, soaked in alcohol and saturated with fried goodies, warmed by an ambiance of all things red and accompanied by enviable, succulent company.
On a side note, who wouldn’t want to head to a neighborhood with the word “cow” in it? For those who didn’t know, I am obsessed with cows.
The overall mischief in the air made up for the inconsistencies in the cuisine. Everything from flirtatious mirrors to tongue-in-cheek menu insertions were an inviting contradiction from the kitsch–meets-opulent venue.
Or perhaps, as they say, good company can tip the scale between like and love.