Noe Valley Voice March 2003

Store Trek

Store Trek is a regular Voice feature profiling new shops, restaurants, and other walk-in businesses in and around the neighborhood. This month we introduce a Vietnamese restaurant with French influences, and a portrait photographer on upper 24th Street.

Tao Café

1000 Guerrero Street at 22nd Street


Last May, a Vietnamese restaurant called Tao Café quietly landed in the space once occupied by the Flying Saucer restaurant. "It was a very soft opening," says chef-owner Thuy Nguyen, "because I had to do it all by myself! Not even my husband had time to help."

But for Nguyen it was the realization of a dream: to open a San Francisco restaurant serving her personal brand of cuisine vietnamienne. "My cuisine is authentic Vietnamese, cooked and prepared the French way," she says.

The "authentic" part is true on both counts. Nguyen, 46, is a native of Vietnam who moved to France when she was 18. After a career as a doctor, she opened her first restaurant, also called Tao, in a section of Paris populated by artists and philosophers. (In Vietnamese, tao means "the way" or "the path" toward enlightenment.)

Nguyen met her husband Jeff Gould, an American living in Paris, at the first Tao. "He was one of my best customers," she says with a smile.

Three years ago, the couple moved to San Francisco with their two daughters, Vera, 9, and Emma, 6. In the fall of 2001, they signed a lease for the restaurant on the corner at 22nd and Guerrero streets.

Though the road to the opening of Tao was not easy--Nguyen's husband was busy with computer consulting work and she was busy caring for their two young girls--the path became a little smoother when world-renowned designer Aline Ho agreed to help Nguyen decorate the space.

Ho, who designed Don Johnson's Ghirardelli Square restaurant Ana Mandara, created a classically elegant décor, which harkens back to French colonial days in Saigon. Traditional Vietnamese ink paintings and framed chinaware adorn the "lemongrass-green" walls. (Lemongrass is an essential ingredient in Vietnamese cuisine, says Nguyen.) Bamboo chairs with cream-colored cushions flank round, dark-wood dining tables. A serene, romantic atmosphere extends throughout the restaurant's two dining rooms.

A self-described Taoist--a follower of Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu--Nguyen adheres to the Taoist code: "Seek simplicity in the complex." And that is her food philosophy as well: she mixes a variety of fresh ingredients from farmers' markets, but lets the flavors stand on their own. The result is a unique blend of Asian and French-Mediterranean tastes.

Nguyen changes her menu frequently, but among her current recommendations are the traditional pho bo, or beef soup ($7.50); a "Vietnamese ratatouille" with Japanese eggplant ($10); ga xoi, grilled chicken breast in a ginger-sesame sauce ($11.50); and bun cha, pork skewers served Hanoi-style ("the people's way"), in a bowl with noodles and greens ($11). "I am also most proud of the grilled medium-rare Angus beefsteak" ($15).

Tao offers several tofu dishes, including "Thai-style" tofu with sweet and sour shrimp, spiced with tamarind and galangal ($8.50); and tofu in a clay pot, with wood-ear mushrooms, bean threads, and zucchini in a turmeric and coconut sauce, served with black jasmine rice ($12).

Nguyen also suggests a Vietnamese family favorite called bo bun--warm salad with stir-fried beef over lettuce, peanuts, and rice vermicelli ($9.50). She will make a vegetarian version if you wish.

The mon nhâu (appetizers) are "dishes for men who gather around with pints of beer or rice liquor in war or peace time." Options include "crunchy prawns, for two," in a fruit and vegetable sauce ($13), and warm calamari salad ($7.50).

The most expensive item at Tao is a dish for two called ca/ga kho to--a clay pot of white fish fillets seared in caramelized sauce, served with hot peppers and steamed vegetables. The market price in February was $28 ($20 if made with chicken and pickled ginger).

In addition to all the standard beverages, Tao offers two beers from Vietnam: Hue and 33. And there is a long wine list, including French wines such as Meursault, a Burgundian chardonnay; Margaux, a red Bordeaux; and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a red Côtes du Rhone.

After nine months, Nguyen says she is pleased with her clientele. Some customers converse in French with her, and some are friends she has made through her daughters' French-American School. She and her family recently moved from the Sunset to the corner of Sanchez and Elizabeth streets in Noe Valley.

"I can't believe we are here," she says. "I feel really good about this neighborhood, because it is just like the one we had in Paris. It must have been intuition that made us choose this place."

Tao Café is open every day from 5:30 to 10 p.m. during the week, and until 10:30 p.m. on weekends. The restaurant is available for private parties, offering a prix fixe menu ($15 to $20 per person). Tao also caters and offers takeout.

--Olivia Boler

Lisa Lefkowitz Photography

4231 24th Street at Douglass Street


Lisa Lefkowitz, a portrait photographer whose photos have been displayed at galleries and museums around the country, has opened a studio on 24th Street.

"I'm excited to be doing business in Noe Valley," says the 26-year-old Bernal Heights resident. "Noe Valley is where I come to shop and hang out."

Lefkowitz opened her storefront next to Sherri King Accounting--in the block of 24th between Diamond and Douglass streets--in early February, following a move from Glen Park.

Lefkowitz does all kinds of photography--from advertising shoots to baby photos--but weddings and family portraits are a specialty. "Events like weddings allow me to be creative. I mix candid photographs, portraits, and still lifes to tell the story of the day." She also photographs corporate events, bar mitzvahs, anniversary parties, and other special occasions.

Lefkowitz says her fine arts approach and use of natural light distinguish her work. She has a degree in visual arts from Oberlin College in Ohio, and has furthered her studies in art and art history at the San Francisco Art Institute. "I think knowing the history of your medium is integral to being a good artist." She's been shooting professionally for six years.

Before opening her own business three years ago, Lefkowitz worked as a commercial photographer, including stints with Moxie and Rolling Stone magazines. She has also exhibited work at the Texas Fine Art Association; the Holter Museum in Helena, Mont.; the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento; and the Museum of Fine Arts at Florida State University. Several samples of her fine arts portraiture are in the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Artists Gallery, located at Fort Mason.

Her small Noe Valley storefront is a cozy place where clients can review her portfolio and discuss their specific needs. Shabby-chic furnishings add a homey touch (the Nifty Vintique shop on Church Street provided the furniture, which is also for sale). In addition, Lefkowitz exhibits her collection of vintage wedding photos and old cameras, featuring her father's Brownie Hawkeye from the 1950s.

Wedding packages are custom-priced, but couples should plan on spending $3,500, she says. Children's portrait packages cost $250 for a one-hour shoot on location; family portraits are $375. "I usually ask the family to pick a playground, backyard, or other place where they will be comfortable. Douglass Park would be great," she says.

Lefkowitz encourages parents to bring favorite toys or blankets. "Kids are so spontaneous. You can't pose them," she says. "It's really exciting to follow their lead."

She adds that she is comfortable with kids on both sides of the camera, having taught photography to Bay Area children at Studio One in Oakland.

Lefkowitz also sells a variety of photography-related items, including handmade fabric-covered frames by Molly West and leather-bound photo albums.

Her studio is open daily by appointment. Because she is often out on a shoot, Lefkowitz encourages you to call first, but you are welcome to drop by.

--Stephanie Rapp