By Laura Shunk
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BarBao is a rambling restaurant: The bar gives way to the dining room, which angles over into a lounge and summer-roll bar. The place is interesting to look at—the streaky blond-wood ceiling is beautiful, and the blowsy embroidered loveseats and tasseled lamps in the lounge remind me of the terrifyingly rococo décor favored by old Italian aunties.
But if the attractive space sets you up to think you're in an expensive, of-the-moment spot (a Double Crown for the UWS, as it were), Michael Huynh's vibrant, refined Vietnamese cooking—pho with sweetbreads, shredded duck with daikon cake—gives the place soul. And the prices are very much in tune with current realities: You could easily have a full meal here for under $30—or under $20, if you choose carefully.
Huynh gets more attention for his restaurant-hopping than for the remarkable story of how he became New York's best-known Vietnamese chef. Huynh grew up in Saigon, where his mother owned an acclaimed restaurant. He apprenticed for her as a boy; after the war, he escaped to America as a refugee. The young chef was adopted by a family in upstate New York who owned an Italian restaurant: "So I cooked Italian for a few years," Huynh says.
In 2001, he opened his own Manhattan spot, Bao 111. Since then, he's bopped around a few restaurants—Mai House and Bun—encouraging writers to trot out cheffy clichés: he's a bad-boy chef; he's the Don Juan of pho. "This is America—chefs are like free agents, like baseball players," Huynh counters. But he says he plans to stay at BarBao now, where he's the executive chef and part owner.
His menu is made up of small and large plates, all of which, your server will sternly inform you, must be shared—which works for me. The waitstaff, in general, ranges from the friendly and competent to the imperious and invasive. Upselling ("Do you want to add a side?") is hard to avoid these days, and BarBao is no exception. The obligatory cocktail list sports clever names ("the Jane Fonda"!), but the drinks themselves are mainly made with flavored spirits and are generally uninspiring (although our waiter wanted us to know that the cocktails were "really innovative").
The best of the menu is found in the small-plates section; these dishes are more adventurous than the larger plates, which, while tasty, tend more toward the staid. Plus, it's more fun to order a bunch of small dishes when you're sharing.
Whatever you do, don't miss the daikon duck hash—it's outrageously good. A toss of chewy, fried daikon cubes, swabs of salty, shredded duck, and bits of duck bacon are topped with a soft poached egg. Break the egg and let the yolk spill out, rendering the whole mixture gooey and rich. The cubes of daikon are crispy on the outside and have a starchy, smooth chew, very similar to Chinese turnip cake or Singaporean carrot cake. These pleasantly gummy nuggets are made by mashing the crisp daikon with rice flour until the mixture resembles mashed potatoes; steaming the batter to form a large cake; and then cubing it and crisping the bite-size bits before serving.
The salt-and-pepper crispy sweetbreads are equally great. The billowy thymus glands are fried crisp and paired with braised bitter melon and a slice of pickled peach. A bite of all three together yields springy richness from the sweetbreads countered by the tangy-bitter-sweet of the melon and peach.
On the simpler side, there are fine crab spring rolls—fat, fried oblongs filled with pork and a meager amount of crab. Wrap them up in a lettuce leaf along with pickled carrot, daikon, and basil, and dip them in the nuoc cham sauce—a common Vietnamese dipping condiment made of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, water, chilies, and garlic. The summer rolls (choose between veggie, shrimp, duck confit, pork, or shortrib fillings), on the other hand, were ordinary. I've had better at most neighborhood Vietnamese spots.
The larger plates stick with more conventional proteins. The best bet is the very interactive hanger steak. It's blackened on the outside and garnet in the middle, and garnished with fried discs of ginger. You take a piece, dip it in nuoc cham, dredge it in puffed black rice, and eat it with a bit of fresh basil.
The iron-pot chicken arrives at the table in a crock; when the top is lifted, an aromatic ginger-chicken steam billows out. Inside, there's a nice stew of chicken, ginger, chilies, and marble-size quail eggs. The Mekong market clay pot is also worth ordering, featuring two gigantic, head-on prawns and whatever fish is fresh that day. We had it with basa, a lusciously flaky white fish.
The pork belly (God forbid that a restaurant would skip the pork belly!) seems more Germanic than Vietnamese, paired with sweet-and-sour red cabbage and mustard-spiked applesauce. The promised coconut emulsion was undetectable. And the pho had an appealing, sweet-edged star-anise broth, but lacked long-simmered beef-bone depth. Also, although bits of sweetbreads joined the rice noodles bobbing in the broth, the promised rare beef never made it into our bowl.