In San Francisco we tend to think of ourselves as flush with good fusion restaurants of all sorts, especially Vietnamese. With hometown stars like Ana Mandara and The Slanted Door, I was surprised to be introduced to a restaurant in New York that easily tops both of those popular institutions at significantly lower prices. Ah yes, New York.
Last Sunday we joined Ruth's brother for a meal at Bao 111, a small Lower East Side establishment. Amidst the noise of a loud (but very good) live jazz trio and about 50 young hipsters, we enjoyed a great meal.
Bao is the creation of Chris Andrews, Chris Johnson and executive chef /owner Michael Huynh, longtime veterans of the NY restaurant scene and such success stories as Balthazar, Bond Street, and ViCaLa. Michael Huynh, who has won accolades from the James Beard Foundation, has crafted a menu inspired by his mother who owned a restaurant in Vietnam.
The restaurant is long, narrow and dark, with a single aisle down which the waiters jog and bump their way, carrying small plates with mouthwatering aromas to be set down amongst the cramped narrow tables of people who are happy to eat despite the squeeze. This is not a restaurant that you come to in order to be left alone for a quiet date (at least not on the weekends). The noisy room is coupled with a brusque service which is surprisingly (for the price of the place) likely to leave a stack of silverware on your table to distribute among your friends, or to forget an entrée you ordered in the heat of their rush. If you're willing to suffer those inconveniences, or better yet, even expect them with the popularity of hip, entrepreneurial NYC restaurants like this one, you can get yourself one heck of a meal.
Try starting with their delectable finger sized crab spring rolls with chopped pork bean thread and mushrooms. Each roll is lovingly fried to perfection and served with lettuce leaf wrappings and a nice sake, red pepper dipping sauce. If you have a big appetite or a couple of friends along to justify that extra appetizer, let me also suggest the tuna spring rolls which are scented with black truffles and come with a really unique pineapple soy dipping sauce, or the green mango salad with steamed shrimp and lime dressing.
The entrees are varied and interesting, and as I was with a group of 7 I had a chance to try several winners. I was completely taken with their lemongrass encrusted Colorado lamb chop with bok choy and anise scented jus. Perfectly cooked and gorgeously seasoned, these were a nice Asian take on a traditional dish that made me wish I had ordered two plates full. My other favorites were the steamed whole red snapper, which was perfectly done and incredibly fresh, as well as the sautéed frogs legs in a spicy curry lemongrass sauce with clear noodles.
Instead of a wine list, Bao offers a nice selection of "designer" sakes, nothing that a real Japanese Sake aficionado would rave over, but a nice range of flavors and qualities from floral to dry starting at about $35 a bottle. They also have a nice selection of loose leaf teas that are a good accompaniment to their innovative selection of desserts, which include black rice pudding, banana spring rolls, lime custard, a warm chocolate cake delicately flavored with curry, and my favorite: a warm goat cheese tart topped with concord grape gelee and served with poached Asian pears. This was a wonderful concoction, like a light cheesecake, and the sweet flavors of grape and pear perfectly complemented the sourness of the goat cheese.
Despite having to remind a waiter about a missing entree and a few other slip-ups (and the din) the food at Bao is far too good to pass up. I'd trade it for any of the, at this point over-hyped, fancy Vietnamese fusion joints in San Francisco.
How Much?: about $40 a person including a bottle of Sake.
111 Avenue C
New York, NY
Reservations are recommended as the restaurant seats about 50 and is frequently packed. Live jazz on Sunday nights. Open Mon-Sat 6pm-2am; Sun 6pm-12am.
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