Oh Charles! Why oh why, Charles? In the late 90s I lived on 18th and Valencia. Regularly, on my way home from work I would stop off at the Slanted Door for some Shaking Beef, Fresh Spring Rolls or Clay Pot Chicken. The energy of the first SD location was the epitome of the boom days of the .com era. Mission hipsters lined up down the block, the music was loud, the food was innovative and unique, the vibe was perfect.
Perfect, so much so, the rest is the tale of San Francisco restaurant legend. First there was the temporary location in South Beach (never made it, sorry). Then the big Ferry Building gamble that paid off in spades (Slanted Door is one of the top grossing restaurants in the city). Next, another gamble on Out the Door, which I think the jury is still out-the-door on (man, I'm just kicking the puns this week!). They certainly seem consistently busy there and overcame a massive ceiling water burst, which closed them for a few weeks. Then there was the cafeteria at the Academy of Arts and Sciences, which I am guessing was an ego venture.
And now we have Heaven's Dog, the latest venture from the Phan family located on the ground floor of the Soma Grand on Mission Street at 7th Street. I met my pal Tony for lunch, despite his protestations. It seems the "Dog" wasn't getting good reviews. But, how could that be possible? At the least, with Charles' influence, there had to be a sensible menu with a handful of well-executed gems. Right? Charles? Right?
Unfortunately this isn't one of those happy endings. In fact, everything we ate (and we both agreed, so this isn't my jaded view) was just plain bad. I know that this my second negative restaurant review in a row (see Gialina) but I can't say a single positive thing about the food at Heaven's Dog. Here's the rundown:
Upon our server's recommendation we had the pork belly & bun appetizer. This was probably the best dish, but it just came up dry. The meat was juicy and would have been fine in another vessel, but the bun was dry and needed some sort of sauce. Just a simple hit of a plum-type sauce would have done the trick. Or maybe an innovative fiery broth from the mind of Charles. But no.
Next were house-special dumplings, again upon recommendation. The skins were mushy, the broth inside wasn't terribly tasty and the meat was just a lump of ground pork. They served it with a soy sauce and ginger - neither added anything. I kept thinking of the comparable dumpling at Yank Sing, which is on another planet by comparison. Everything about the Yang Sing dumpling screams exceptional. I don't understand why Charles wouldn't aspire to do better.
For mains we went with more suggestions (maybe our waitress wanted to torture us?) - Salt and Pepper Squid and Braised Kale. We expected the squid to be fresh and tender. What we got was greasy, chewy and salty fried calamari. Absolutely nothing innovative about it. We couldn't even finish it. The Kale looked promising. It was bright green and seemed to be cooked perfectly. But then we tasted the sauce. It was essentially soy sauce. I tasted nothing but soy. So, I was eating bad calamari and kale soaked in soy.
As we finished up I looked around the room and started wondering where the name came from. Waiting for the check, the kale sat in front of me and I started to think that it smelled like a wet dog. It all made sense.
I still believe Charles is a superstar. Whenever we have guests in town I take them to the Ferry Building and brave the crowds for a nostalgic Shaking Beef or Imperial Roll. But if this meal was any example of what's cooking at Heaven's Dog, and other reviewers seem to confirm, Charles may be spread too thin. We have the right to expect more.