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D.o.b. 111, Michael Bao Huynh's new Vietnamese-European restaurant in the East Village, felt on the verge of anarchy on a recent night. One long table was full of banker dudes doing a lot more drinking than eating, and discussing unoriginal ways to get laid ("Get a pitcher of margaritas . . . "). The sole waiter looked like a drowning man, wincing as he informed us that there were no more wine glasses, so . . . did we still want to drink the bottle we brought? We looked at the menu and despaired of ever getting anything to eat. But suddenly there was Huynh, dressed in chef's whites and wielding a pen, ready to take our order despite the fact that he's a partner in nine other eateries and probably a little bit busy.
Huynh has always been ambitious and peripatetic, but his restauranting went into overdrive when the recession hit, as he snapped up leases when rents plummeted. He has no problem dreaming up concepts—a Vietnamese beer garden, pho and banh mi shops, a burger joint, a Vietnamese-accented burrito spot. He opens restaurants with the speed and frequency of breeding bunnies, but many of the places are short-lived, and he has left a trail of disgruntled partners in their wake.
Some fault him for enterprising at the expense of his cooking talent—an unwillingness to stay in the kitchen and concentrate on a particular restaurant. Others say he dumbs down and prices-up his Vietnamese food for a gentrified clientele: His banh mi at Baoguette are $3 more expensive than their larger, tastier counterparts in Chinatown. Then again, his sandwiches will do in a pinch, and are available in parts of the city that are otherwise banh-mi deficient.
After Huynh took our order that night, he disappeared into the kitchen for a while, presumably to prepare it. A representative for the restaurant says that he's cooking at d.o.b. 111 everyday.
He's had a lifetime of training. After working in his mother's restaurant kitchen when he was young, Huynh escaped communist Vietnam in 1982, leaving on a rickety boat that was eventually picked up by the U.S.S. Midway. An upstate New York family adopted him, and Huynh cooked in their Italian restaurant for a few years. Later, he moved to the city, where he studied architecture and construction. He can build his own restaurants, work the kitchen and front-of-house, too. But he can only be in one place at a time.
Huynh's food, when he's attending to it, is characterized by a tightrope-perfect balance of flavors and textures—bright, zippy citrus; pungent fish sauce; fatty meats; cool, slippery noodles; and fresh herbs. After a deeply mediocre meal at pan-Asian noodle spot O Bao, Huynh's last big opening, it was a surprise and a pleasure to again recognize his skill at d.o.b. His cooking is rooted in the Vietnamese tradition, but not tied to it. At this new restaurant, you find European influences in the ingredients—foie gras, gnocchi, ravioli—and in the format: Western-style appetizers and mains.
Although d.o.b. can feel slap-dash and rote, Huynh's menu shows occasional flashes of brilliance. One of the restaurant's best dishes is called "mind of lamb." These lamb-brain ravioli ($11) are encased in thin, delicate dumpling skins that slip on your tongue, gushing the creamy, musky organ. They sit in a shallow pool of pink sauce made from lobster roe and shrimp. The disparate elements come together in a kind of meditation on funk from earth and sea.
Find another minor triumph in the appetizer of scallops with cauliflower-almond purée, green curry, and bits of bacon ($11). The bivalves sport an appetizing sear, and the interplay between the rich, sweet purée and the spicy, acidic curry strikes a nice balance. Oxtail stew ($16) provides warmth and richness, the tender meat in a deep, star-anise-scented broth with root vegetables and horseradish gnocchi.
But it's also possible to have a barely adequate meal at d.o.b.—an herb-heavy shrimp salad marred with rancid peanuts, "crispy" pork belly composed entirely of decidedly not-crisp fat. You feel there's potential here, though, at least when Huynh is in the kitchen.
Mikey's Burger, Huynh's stab at a burger joint, opened on the Lower East Side about three months before d.o.b. At lunch one afternoon, the exceptionally pretty girl behind the counter was comatose for all intents and purposes, although she managed to deliver our food eventually. The place looks like an old-fashioned diner, with a counter and padded stools. It serves competent but not exciting burgers and hot dogs.
The marquee "Mikey" ($5.50) combines a beef patty with bits of corned beef, sautéed onions, and sharp Chinese mustard on a potato bun. It's less delicious than it sounds, cooked to a dryish medium-well by default. Better, though, is the satay lamb burger ($6), served with onions and pickled jalapeños. I don't know what's satay about it, but the well-seasoned meat spurts juice. Skip the soggy fries.
The milkshakes, though, are a fantastic mash-up of the South and Southeast Asian penchant for elaborate, extremely sweet cold dessert drinks and the American soda fountain. A mint-green avocado concoction tastes mild and nourishing. But if you want something astonishing, go for the sesame milkshake—sesame paste, condensed milk, and vanilla ice cream whizzed together into a deeply nutty, creamy froth. Topped with chopped pistachios and a bit of sweet vermicelli, it's better than the beach on a hot day. Baoskin Robbins, anyone?
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com