A cross between rustic, familiar, and sophisticated.
Be forewarned: I find most of the recipes in this book irresistible. In this review I couldn't help but mention many of them.(So sorry. But, you know, when you've had enough, you can stop reading....)
When I heard Charles Phan was writing another book, I could hardly wait to get my hands on it. I love his book "Vietnamese Home Cooking" and use its recipes often. That book was a wealth of information and creative ideas. It's well-written and has great photography. I anticipated that this new book would be even more impressive--in all ways. I am happy to say that it has superseded my expectations!
As one would expect from Charles Phan, this cookbook is down to earth and well-enough suited for a home kitchen: Most recipes are approachable. The ingredients are easy to find (if you can get yourself to an Asian market, and have access to fresh vegetables, greens and fish). In this second book, the finished dishes might look prettier on the plate, and a little less rustic than those in his "Home Cooking" book, and some ingredient lists a bit longer. But, I don't think these recipes are any more complicated. In fact, many are short and sophisticated; pairing fewer ingredients with great success.
Yes, it is--what I call--a restaurant cookbook, written by a popular restaurant chef. And I usually try to avoid those because they tend to be very "full of themselves". Often "restaurant cookbooks" are way too self-serving, boastful and prideful, almost righteous-sounding: Containing complicated recipes using hard-to-find and/or expensive ingredients, needing too many pots and pans, and labor intensive from prep work to clean up. Not this book: Somehow, it comes off as a humble offering wonderful recipes and helpful information. I like and appreciate that.
Pictures in this book are beautiful and plentiful. Page layout is easy on the eyes. Ingredient lists are easier to read than in his first book. Instructions are straightforward and easy to follow and play alongside the ingredient lists. The recipes are divided into unique chapters that incorporate the history of his Slanted Door restaurant as it moved from its humble beginnings to larger quarters. (Check out the "Look Inside" feature on this product page to see the Contents page.) So, besides being crammed with recipes from The Slanted Door, the book also tells the very interesting story of Charles Phan and his evolution into a highly regarded chef with highly regarded and popular restaurants. As he tells his story, he pays special tribute to his family, co-workers, purveyors, and more, without whose help he would not be where he is today.
There are very few--maybe just one, actually--repeated recipes from the first book. Pork and Shrimp Spring Rolls is back in this book, but maybe just in honor of this recipe that gave inspiration for Phan's Slanted Door; (In this book there is also a vegetarian spring roll recipe). For instance, the Pork and Shrimp Wonton filling has different ingredients in each book. (The recipe in this book is even easier. After reading the recipe, one can't help but make them right away.) You will find the same main ingredients in many recipes, but prepared with different flavors; the same techniques used with different proteins and vegetables, different sauces. I guess what I'm trying to say is that the recipes in this second book look and sound familiar, but upon second glance, they are totally different. But you can recognize the Charles Phan in every one.
Besides stories about the restaurants, there are also essays on other topics like tea and wine.
Other cooks may love this book for its wealth of recipes that can be saved up for a slow, leisurely, day-off from work, a trip to several markets, and a day-in the kitchen, building flavor upon flavor until it all comes together as a whole (some of the soups, stews, spring and Imperial rolls fall into this category).
But, what I love about his books is discovering "gems" of recipes that are heavy on flavor and light on time spent in the kitchen. (When Gulf shrimp are in season, I make his Simple Grilled Shrimp once or twice a week. It's in his first book, and if you don't have a copy, you really need to buy it, too.) Here are some recipes in this second book--that I found easy to make and wonderful to eat--and I fully expect them to become worthy "keepers", too:
--Clams with Butter-Lime Sauce; with onion, garlic, wine, fish sauce: Hot spicy, tangy, salty, and luscious.
--Beef Carpaccio, made with pounded-out top round, instead of filet, and a spicy tuna tartare.
--Vietnamese Sausage, made with pork belly, logs wrapped in banana leaves, plastic wrap and foil, then steamed.
--Halibut and Scallop Ceviche
--Boiled Shrimp with Spicy Cocktail Sauce and Thai Basil Aioli
--Vietnamese Chicken Salad, with ginger, scallions, cabbage, rau ram leaves, flavored fish sauce and rice vermicelli. Just the technique of cooking/poaching the whole chicken is a "gem".
--The Spicy Lemongrass Soup is a heavenly broth created from shrimp heads and shells, fish carcasses and aromatics, topped off with quickly cooked shrimp and bean sprouts.
--An oh-so-good simple Jicama and Grapefruit Salad
--I love the Spicy Squid Salad with Chinese Celery, with a tangy, sweet, and salty dressing over briefly boiled squid rings, Thai basil, onion and cucumber.
--Fermented Tofu Dipping Sauce and Egg Fish Sauce for steamed veggies.
--Worth the price of the book, this recipe: Vietnamese Quiche: Crustless, made with cellophane noodles, mushrooms, ground pork, crab, and more. Steamed. There is more to it, but I'm not going to tell....
--I love simple perfectly poached chicken. So I love Hainan Chicken. It, also, is worth the price of the book to me.
Do I dare keep going? Braised Ginger Chicken, Roasted Crab, Roasted Lobster, Fried Chicken (yes), Caramelized Chicken Claypot, Steamed Halibut with Ginger Lime Broth, Steamed Black Cod in Banana Leaf, (I love steamed fish and the broth is lovely), Steamed Spare Ribs, Steamed Chicken with Black Bean Sauce.
Other interesting recipes:
--Crispy Rice Cakes made in a Danish ebelskiver pan.
--Shrimp paste formed around sugar cane sticks and grilled.
--The whole chapter on cocktails is interesting. (What? Do all restaurant cookbooks have a "spirited" chapter now?) But many do call for some ingredients that would have to be special-ordered in my area. They sure are beautiful to look at, though....
--The recipe for The Slanted Door's "Shaking Beef" is in this book.
--Wish I could get fresh sardines. I would love to make the Sardine Claypot. It looks soooo good.
--What to do with king trumpet mushrooms? Stir-fry with fresh corn.
Desserts: They are simple offerings: Strawberry or Coconut-Lime sorbet, No-Bake Cheesecake with a special crust, Coconut Tapioca, The Slanted Door's Chocolate Souffle Cake, Vietnamese Chocolate Tres Leches Cake (a real winner if you have time), and more.
**I received a temporary download from the publisher to review this cookbook by Charles Phan--and I am so glad they allowed me to see it ahead of time. I have been working with it for several months while the final copy was prepared for publication. This is a book I will purchase in the near future--can't live without it! Got to have it, now that it has been released to the public. EDIT: I purchased this book from Amazon and you can see the "Verified Purchase" tag at the top of my review.