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Desiccated Dreams

Given the star-rating of this restaurant, I'll anticipate the critics-of-the-critic: Why did I eat at Ben's 1615, and why am I reviewing it?

To answer the first question: About a year ago, a colleague who is a friend of the Filipino doctor who owns Ben's (cardiologist Benjamin O. Camacho) sent me a menu and urged me to try the place. I Googled it and found that one of my favorite local Asian-food blogs (source of many good tips, thank you, "mmm yoso") had praised it enthusiastically.

I was jazzed, because I love the bold, far-out flavors of Filipino food and there isn't nearly enough of it locally. For many years my day gig in San Francisco was in civil service, where at least a quarter of my colleagues were Filipino. Holiday potlucks included wonderful lumpia (spring rolls) and pancit (resembling soft-fried chow mein), sparking my appetite for more. Then came recipe-sharing: A lovely Medi-Cal eligibility princess taught me how she trimmed the heads and stringy tails from bean sprouts for her lumpia, leaving only the good crunchy part. Eventually came friendships, including eating out at some of the fine Filipino restaurants in south San Francisco.

Filipino food turned out to be fascinating -- one of those "original fusion cuisines" that differs from all others in the cuisines that it fuses. The first inhabitants of the islands are thought to be Malays, who brought their indigenous cuisine, including coconut milk, fermented fish sauces, seafood, pork, and native vegetables, often combined in stews like the popular kare kare (meat and vegetables with peanut sauce). Many Chinese traders had settled in the islands permanently by 1400; they became so entrenched that Filipinos (pinoys) of Chinese ancestry have nicknamed themselves chinoys. Their contributions include lumpia, pancit, and soy sauce. Other dishes and ingredients were borrowed later from neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia (including hot peppers -- which arrived in Asia in the 16th Century -- and curry dishes). Spanish colonizers were a huge influence, bringing olive oil, garlic, beef, perhaps vinegar, along with numerous full-blown recipes -- for instance, Spain's cocido, a chicken and sausage stew, was easily transformed into the islands' pochero. Seafarers encountering Filipino hospitality often grew as enchanted as Odysseus's men on the island of Aeaea, marrying and staying for life, bringing touches of other national cuisines (e.g., bay leaves, annatto seeds, and tomatoes from Mexico, which administered the Philippines for Spain, with regular two-way ship traffic). More recently, servicemen from the U.S., and even homesick tourists from Japan and Germany, have added to the mix.

But here I am now, 700 miles south of "South City," and the only Filipino restaurants I know about are turo turos -- "point-point joints," the equivalent of the 99-cent Chinese takeout eateries, everything ready-made and wilting on the steam tables. (Dear readers, if you know of other serious local Filipino restaurants, please e-mail or even snail-mail me with the info.)

Ben's 1615's menu, compared to point-points, is exciting and ambitious. It offers creative takes on Western dishes (tilapia cordon bleu, salmon papillote in banana leaves), pan-Asian dishes (Thai green curry mussels, Hainanese chicken), and fusion (pork adobo pesto, chicken satay stuffed with cream cheese). Best of all, at the heart of the menu is a section called "Traditional Filipino Dishes" that used to include my favorite, Sinigang (sour tamarind soup). No dinuguan (pork blood stew), but hey, even in South City the upscale restaurants didn't serve that.

By the time I got around to eating at Ben's, the menu had changed. Goodbye Sinigang, but hello Bangus, the popular (locally rare) "milkfish." About half the appetizers had changed, too. Odds are, the chef has changed as well since that year-old glowing blog entry. When I called Dr. Camacho, he was gone for the weekend and then "too busy" to talk to me -- and so was the restaurant manager (who failed to return three messages, with the deadline specified). But the doctor's receptionist mentioned that a second location had recently opened in the Gaslamp. That may well explain our unhappy meal at the National City address. Dollars to diniguan, the original chef is now cooking at the new outfit while a line-chef he trained has taken over the kitchen on Sweetwater Road. I'd also bet (but caveat emptor) that the Gaslamp newbie is likely to be turning out food that's better than merely "fair." There is nothing wrong with the recipes for the dishes at Ben's 1615, but they were wrecked in their execution.

Ben's 1615 is located in a strip mall dominated by -- Ben. Two doors down is a flashy street-level cardiology office, B. Camacho, M.D. Next door is B.C. Travel (I wonder whose initials those might be). Above the restaurant is an attached bar-lounge with multicolored revolving disco lights visible from the parking lot. By 8:30 on a Thursday night, the lounge was filling up with twentyish Filipinos, although the restaurant was still sparsely populated. I suspect the lounge of being the secret of Ben's longevity -- like the salsa nights at Habana (reviewed two weeks ago) and the after-dinner discos at a lot of Gaslamp joints that serve up so-so grub with their hot singles' scenes.

Our posse settled at a table at the attractive restaurant, with small Asian sculptures in niches along the walls. I was impressed that Ben's had gone to the trouble of finding fresh pandan leaves (with an addictive, vanilla-like scent), so I started with pandan iced tea. The pandan flavor was drowned by copious sugar.

The best of our appetizers was a "Shanghai" version of lumpia (this is a Filipino standard), stuffed with a mild, pleasant forcemeat of ground pork and carrots and served with a glutinous sweet dipping sauce. Not a thrill like great lumpia, but satisfying like a breakfast at Denny's (just down the road). We also enjoyed Sotanghon soup, a mild, soothing reddish broth filled with slippery mung bean noodles, chicken, shrimp, and dainty whole quail eggs, their firm whites enclosing delicious hot liquid yolks that squirt into your mouth when you bite down.

"Thai" seafood cakes with mango sauce were edible but unfocused, with a loose texture. (Was this an attempt at tod mun? You'd never guess it.) And five-spice beef kebabs were not so much overcooked as tough ab ovo -- a cheap cut of cheap beef, if our teeth were any guide. When we tried to cut the meat with the standard restaurant knives provided, our thumbs tired out before the beef surrendered.

By then, we were starting to think in Dante-esque terms: "Ye who enter here forsake all hope of a good dinner." The entrées clarified what was going wrong. The problem generally lay in the kitchen's hasty, careless execution.

Starting with the best again, Pampanga Sisig offers pork liver and cheeks in tiny dice, the fattiness of the cheeks balanced by a tangy sauce dominated by vinegar -- sour, yes, but not too sour, with a subtle touch of hot pepper. We noticed that a pretty young woman among a Filipino quartet (which arrived as we were finishing) had also chosen this dish.

Bangus (milkfish) is a pond-raised whitefish, high in good fish fats and beloved in the islands but rarely available in the U.S. (and always in frozen form). At Ben's, the whole fish is split open and the skeleton lifted out. It's salted heavily, the flesh side browned, and served with a topping of mango salsa. Nice idea but impatient execution. The head was deliciously crunchy (it was among the kitty-bag leftovers, so I could chomp it privately and not shock my friends), but most of the flesh was parched dry, except for a mysterious center-seam featuring sweet flesh of almost gooey tenderness. If that center is what milkfish tastes like when cooked more carefully, little wonder that Filipinos are so fond of it.

Binagoongan Sa Gata has inch-by-two-inch chunks of pork belly (unsmoked bacon) fried to hard-crisp the surfaces, coated with a thick sauce based on shrimp paste and coconut milk, and topped by a stack of three-inch lengths of Chinese long beans. The surfaces of the meat were overcrisped to something like leather, which also overcooked the cubes' interiors way past optimum unctuousness. Our knives failed us again -- only Spanish swords of Toledo steel might cut through them, and we'd forgotten to bring ours. As for the long beans, they're always chewy (unless you cook them to death), but these were also a bit dry and withered. You'd hope that a restaurant could get fresher produce than the retail customer, but no -- not here anyway, or maybe they'd put in too much fridge time. The sauce was smooth but bland, which is hardly what you expect at a Filipino table, with the texture but not the taste of coconut milk. We couldn't pick up even a hint of normally powerful shrimp paste. Maybe the cook decided to skimp on the shrimp for the gringo table.

The last dish was a heartbreaker. On the fusion-y section of the menu, Chicken Pandan is described as "boneless chicken wrapped in pandan leaves, marinated in coconut milk with kaffir [lime], lemongrass, and sesame." The food blog that praised the restaurant had singled the dish out for the moist tenderness of the chicken. What we got, however, were four desiccated, chicken-thigh mummies, their leafy wrappers dried out and shredding from the heat of cooking. Like all plated entrées here, the chicken arrived with a perfect Egyptian pyramid of white rice at the center of the dish. This apt juxtaposition brought to mind late-night movies -- Boris Karloff in a fez hovering over a swooning heroine, chanting, "Ankhnaten Amon." Rename this dish "Chicken Cheops" -- it tastes as if it died a few thousand years ago.

Maybe the food was better for the young Filipino foursome who'd just sat down as we finished. Maybe the cook took more care for them. We looked over the dessert menu. The interesting stuff I'd seen on the old menu was gone, or currently unavailable. So we were gone, too.

The second part of the opening question: Why write about it? There's no point to reviewing ethnic "mom 'n' pops" that don't make the grade. (Big-money restaurants with bad food are another story.) But I was looking for something affordable and offbeat after last week's French restaurant splurge. Meanwhile, a friend had treated me to a late lunch at a hot newish Mexican restaurant. Her red sauce and meat were fine, my verde or shrimp was probably the source of the food poisoning, which pretty much disqualified that restaurant for review purposes. (Restaurant reviewing is such a glamorous job.) So it was a bad food week, a choice of toxic microbes or overcooking. At least with Ben's you won't get sick (and hey, if you do, there's a doctor next door). Dr. Ben probably opened the restaurant with some idealism, in hopes of exposing wonderful Filipino food to a wider public -- as it fully deserves. Now, maybe the good doctor, with his several enterprises laid out along the strip-mall, will realize that he needs to refocus on his next-door restaurant's kitchen (and not just the new location) to revitalize the dream.

CORRECTION: Quite some time ago I reviewed Heaven Sent Desserts in North Park. Upon sampling many pastries and noticing no butter flavor, I thought that some of them might be made with shortening (i.e., Crisco or Spry), and I called to ask what fats were used. I identified myself merely as "a customer with health problems," since I've learned from experience that restaurant personnel do not always tell known reviewers the absolute truth. The counterperson who answered connected me with someone he identified as "one of the bakers." This rather gruff and suspicious (male) person (who seemed concerned that I might be from a rival bakery trying to steal their recipes) stated that some pastries included shortening. This seems to be untrue. The owners of Heaven Sent aver, first, that none of their bakers are male, and more important, they emphatically deny that any of their pastries include shortening. (Perhaps the person I spoke with was a disgruntled counterman only pretending to be a baker.) In any event, please do not keep asking Heaven Sent about shortening or worrying about it. The owners swear they use no such thing.

[2009 Editor's Note: Ben's 1616 has since closed.]

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