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Success in most endeavors, be it love, career, practice or food, comes down to commitment. Since it opened in 1997, E&O Trading Company, a restaurant one block from Union Square in downtown San Francisco, has built a solid following around its celebration of Southeast Asia. From the Asian marketplace décor to chef du cuisine Sharon Nahm’s menu of Thai, Indian and Chinese derivative dishes, E&O adheres to traditional flavors. While hesitating to place itself on the fusion cuisine wagon, this eatery is many restaurants within one, with dishes for both the vegetarian and the omnivore.
The theme is trade route Asia and based on a once-upon-a-time friendship between an Indonesian spice merchant and an English trader. It is easy to pretend you have landed in a Bangkok port, rather than a block off Union Square. Authenticity and sharing exotic taste sensations are key tenets of the kitchen.
While E&O selects countries to glean curries, herbs and spices, it keeps the focus of individual dishes within the chosen boundaries, as well as the décor.
At a spacious three stories, the first floor is given over to the Marketplace and Dragon Bar. Banquet seating and gossamer lanterns border hardwood floors, red lanterns and wood tables. A floor above, Mezzanine diners enjoy a slightly more hushed atmosphere with a bird’s-eye view of the Marketplace below. Downstairs, the carpeted Cinnabar Room awaits a banquet.
The pillow-bedecked lounged was crowded when I first stopped in with a friend on a Friday evening. Bustling with a convivial crowd of after-work revelers, we found the full bar was as much of a draw as the expansive dining area. We whiled away a happy hour with a crew of investors over lemongrass-infused martinis and chicken and ginger portobello satay.
The menu of small and large plates is ideal for eating family style, which is how we dined a few weeks later on a spring-like Sunday evening. Passing on the tempting daily Street Market Soup (a Thai-inspired green papaya, coconut medley), we opted for a light butter lettuce salad. The starter was surprisingly generous and took its bearings from the flavors of India. Lightly dressed, it was studded with cucumbers, tomatoes, panir cheese and pumpkin seeds. We ate it with the chopsticks our Casablanca-born waiter presented to us in a bamboo cylinder.
If there is one constant on the menu, it is a propensity for using marinades, dipping sauces, glazes and braising to place the dish and display fresh, simple ingredients. As such, the grilled salmon was glazed in sweet hot mustard. Served over a smoky eggplant purée and topped with watercress salad, the fish was perfectly prepared.
Char siu-style smoked black cod employed a mix of seasonings more commonly found in Cantonese cooking. Char siu literally means “fork roasted,” and is often used for meats. Flaky, just barely cooked through and seasoned with a deft hand, this dish was the winner of the night and included a heaping serving of garlic-braised long beans.
More than satisfied by our meal, we perused the dessert menu, which stayed true to the Asian theme. The sundae featured banana ice cream, fudge and coconut. Tempted by the lychee sorbet and banana spring rolls, we nonetheless chose to keep it to green tea and espresso for dessert, feeling like we indeed had paused in a port city, and now sustained, could travel on.