President Clinton loved the lasagna prepared by chef and owner of San Rafael’s Savory Orient, Sajja Ravinantapricha, when both men lived in Arkansas.
In 1977 Ravinantapricha came to the San Francisco from Bangkok as a student. Feeling that college here would be too expensive, he decided on Arkansas. While in school, he worked at several prestigious restaurants in Hot Springs, home of Oaklawn, the famous thoroughbred horse race track. (The fact that his uncle in Bangkok breeds race horses might have factored in a little.)
One restaurant specialized in Southern cooking, so he learned how to prepare Chicken á la King, cornbread, apple pie and fried chicken.
He went on to a French restaurant and then to a high-end Italian restaurant. Because the owner’s daughter was engaged to a prominent politician, many political types including Bill Clinton, who was governor at the time, dined there on a daily basis. That’s where the lasagna comes in.
In 1980, Ravinantapricha moved back to San Francisco and within a few years married his wife Tas. She grew up in Southern California, and subsequently moved to Marin but they had known each other since fifth grade…in Bangkok.
For 22 years, Ravinantapricha has been with the Superior Court in San Francisco as a courtroom clerk. Tas owned the salon next door to where Savory Orient is now. Though she sold it in 2001, and the name has changed, she still works there.
Because the restaurant, which has been through many incarnations over the years, is in the same building, in 2008 the landlord approached the couple about opening a place where they could showcase Asian cuisine.
“So we took a chance,” Ravinantapricha said. “It had been my interest for many years to have a restaurant. It took six months to redo the kitchen and front dining room. Tas did the decorating.”
It is serene yet dramatic, in dark wood furniture with lacquered tables and woven placemats. Asian art is featured in paintings, and hammered copper lotus motifs. A carved wood panel of flowers dominates one of the spice colored walls. The black granite bar serves beer and wine from a handsome Asian glass front cabinet. The kitchen is spectacularly immaculate and well organized, with labels on everything.
Savory Orient, which specializes in Chinese, Japanese and Thai cuisine, opened in August of 2009. “We have a blend of Asian flavors,” said Ravinantapricha. “Korean beef is one of our best sellers. We use a succulent ribeye steak paired with the traditional Bulgogi sauce.”
Popular items on the menu are: Miang Khum, a Thai spinach and lettuce appetizer with grilled prawns; wok-fried Shanghai Noodles; and (Thai Boxing Stadium favorite) grilled honey coriander marinated pork sirloin, so named because it is often served by barbecue vendors outside stadiums. The price of the artistically presented dishes, which can be shared, runs from $8.00-$14.00.
The “Savory O lunch club” menu invites customers to create their own three course lunch for under $12.00.
They do private parties, catering and special events as well. A recent "Jazz Night" had live music and two seatings.
Ravinantapricha is always experimenting with new recipes. Ginger crème brulee is a great dessert, but he’s been working on a Thai tea flavored version.
“I try to use the freshest and best ingredients possible. I make all of the sauces and curry from scratch. There is no added MSG and we cater to special dietary requests,” he said.
Savory Orient's Ginger Crème Brulee – Serves 6
2 cups cream – heavy whipping
5 large egg yolks (keep the egg whites for omelet or meringues)
¼ cup granulated sugar.
1-½ tablespoons fresh ginger root – diced, chopped or grated.
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
½ tablespoon granulated sugar or light brown sugar for each topping
Preheat the oven to about 350ºF.
Prepare a baking pan filled with hot water – enough to go half way up the side of the ramekins.
Combine the cream and sugar in a small sauce pan and bring to a gentle boil.
Add the fresh ginger and let simmer about 4 minutes.
Remove sauce pan from the heat and strain the cream into another sauce pan, discarding the ginger.
(Optional for stronger ginger flavor – allow ginger to infuse in cream for 20 minutes and re-boil the cream before straining)
Whisk the egg yolks together, then slowly pour a small amount of the hot cream into the egg yolks, continue whisking, repeat the process of adding hot cream and whisking until completely combined. (If you add hot cream all at once, you might scramble the eggs!)
Add the vanilla extract and whisk to combine.
Pour the mixture into the desired ramekins (4 oz.) about ¾ full and gently transfer into the baking pan with water bath.
Bake ramekins in the prepared water bath for 20 minutes, rotate and bake for an additional 15 to 20 minutes more.
Remove baking pan from the oven. Edge of the custard should be set and firm but center should jiggle a bit.
Carefully remove each ramekin from the water bath. Let rest to cool at room temperature for about 30 minutes. Refrigerate a minimum of 4 hours, or even better, cover with plastic wrap and let it set over night.
Just before serving, sprinkle ½ tablespoon of the sugar over each custard, tab the ramekin gently to remove excess sugar and wipe clean the edge inside of the ramekin.
Use a small hand-held torch to melt the sugar by moving the torch back and forth slowly about two inches above the custard, until the top is evenly caramelized. Or place the ramekins under the broiler, but watch closely until the sugar melted since the sugar can scorch easily.
Re-chill the crème brulee for a few minutes. This looks lovely garnished with colorful fruit pieces, and a sprig of mint.