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Charles Phan Swings South

The chef who made his name in Vietnamese cuisine is trying to harness the soul of Louisiana

Hard Water's half Dungeness crab
(1 of 5)

Hard Water's bar
(2 of 5)

A mint Julep from the bar
(3 of 5)

Baked oysters de maison
(4 of 5)

Charles Phan
(5 of 5)

Fans of Charles Phan got shocking news this spring when the lights went out on Wo Hing General Store, the much-hyped homecoming project for one of San Francisco’s most well known restaurateurs. Named in honor of Phan’s father and uncle, Wo Hing had opened only 18 months before with a catchy story line behind it: The Valencia Street restaurant occupied the space once filled by the original Slanted Door—the base of operations where it all began.

From his humble beginnings 18 years ago, Phan went on to build an empire, while seemingly skirting the pitfalls of expansion. Even in the most characterless outposts—a shopping mall, a museum café—the chef somehow managed to make his presence felt. He drew on recipes that he’d grown up with. His staff acted like family because they often were.

It appeared that Phan’s success would stretch on like this forever, his spring rolls colonizing every corner of the city. Then came setbacks. Late last fall, a year after shuttering Out the Door, his Slanted Door spin-off in Westfield San Francisco Centre, Phan closed Heaven’s Dog, his Chinese spot in the SoMa Grand, following a flood in the residential tower. Phan says that it will reopen after renovations, though he’s not sure when. What won’t be back is Wo Hing, which never lived up to Slanted Door’s name.

If all this makes you wistful, it’s time to move on. Phan sure has. Witness his two new restaurants—South and Hard Water—sibling ventures whose openings signal the close of an era—or at least a stark departure from Phan’s past. Both serve southern food and take up prime locations. Both have cocktail programs inspired by classic southern drinks. Neither bears Phan’s imprint. If no one told you, odds are that you wouldn’t know he was involved with them at all.

South, the sloppier of the two, is a metal table-furnished space that sits just off the lobby of the SFJazz Center and hits a lot of flat notes, like a saxophonist with shoddy embouchure. It really wants to be a bar, and nothing but, and it could be a good one, given the quality of cocktails such as the Battle of New Orleans, a medley of bourbon, anisette, and absinthe. But Phan has forced the issue by adding a full menu, which raises expectations and throws off the mechanics of the place. If you go for a light bite, you can get by fine on cornmeal-crusted oysters, or boudin balls that taste like Dixie relatives of arancini, with an underlying cayenne kick.

But sit for a full-length dinner, and you’re asking for frustration. Flatware gets forgotten. Food emerges slowly, and it’s not always worth the wait. Tender oxtail arrives wildly oversalted, while black-eyed pea succotash has the opposite problem. Chicken-and- andouille gumbo lacks a gumbo’s depth of flavor, while a wedge salad, drenched in buttermilk dressing, sports stale-tasting lardons.

Aside from the drinks, the best thing about South is the glimpse it gives you of the SFJazz stage. But when intermission crowds spill from the theater clamoring for cocktails, any chance you had at service is pretty much shot.

While South takes aim at a jazzy audience, Hard Water targets the after-work unwind. The clock strikes five, and suits begin to swarm the Pier 3 space, which is marked by a marble horseshoe bar, a large half dome-shaped light fixture, and a stunning library of whiskey and bourbon. Like its counterpart, Hard Water serves terrific cocktails, but its food is more composed, and its sense of identity is clearer. With its stone surfaces, cacophonous acoustics, and bar-and-counter seating only, it’s the kind of place that makes you want to crack some crab legs or slurp a dozen oysters as your buzz begins to build.

Though happy hour is a high time here, much of the menu can hold up through the evening. Feisty chaurice sausage, served with pickles, Creole mustard, and a Mason jar of pork rillettes, makes a satisfying, south-inflected starter. Wild gulf flounder is a sweet counterpart to an andouille grits cake and a fiery side of cabbage slaw. The challenge isn’t settling on something good to order. It’s flagging down a server and finding elbow room to eat.

On one of my visits, I was camped out at the bar, a lubricated crowd swelling around me. I asked about dessert. What was hummingbird cake? The bartender didn’t know: Few patrons, it seemed, made it that far on the menu. (It’s a southern classic studded with pecans and smeared with cream cheese frosting.)

People came and went, but the throng remained consistent. The seat beside me emptied, and a dark-haired man swept in to claim it. He looked familiar, but it took a double take for confirmation. Charles Phan may be the owner of an empire in transition, but at that moment, he was just another guy trying to get a drink.

The Ticket
A recommended dinner for two people (before tax and tip) at Hard Water.
Baked oysters de maison (half dozen) .....................  $22
Half dungeness crab ................................................. $18
Chaurice sausage and pork rillettes ......................... $15
Crispy milk-braised celery hearts .............................. $12
Seafood gumbo ........................................................ $20
Flounder with spicy slaw and andouille grits cake .... $24
Dirty rice ................................................................... $7
Collard greens .......................................................... $7
Hummingbird cake..................................................... $7
Mint julep .................................................................  $10
Roffignac cocktail ..................................................... $10
Total.......................................................................... $152

Hard Water
Pier 3, Ste. 3-102,
The Embarcadero
(Near Washington St.),
415-392-3021
Two Stars

South at SFJazz
201 Franklin St.
(At Fell St.),
415-539-3905
One and a Half stars

Originally published in the June 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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