With Nightingale 9, American-Vietnamese Street Food Comes to Carroll Gardens
The fried rice at Nightingale 9 has been crisped in pig's fat and comes dotted with clouds of fried egg. But the best thing about it might be the little pieces of sweet and salty country ham, which deliver a comforting taste of street food, but also show us how immigrant communities continue to elevate, complicate, and revise American food culture.
The dish at Nightingale 9, a new Vietnamese restaurant in Carroll Gardens, has been purposefully under-seasoned, but it comes to the table with a small bottle of Bluegrass soy sauce, made from beans grown in Kentucky and fermented in bourbon barrels, which brings the rice to life with a slash of umami and salt. If you want to turn up more flavors, there's a vinegary hot sauce and chile-spiked fish sauce to play with on the table, along with nuoc cham, of course, the fishy dip that tends to makes everything it touches just a little bit better—even country ham.
Is this Vietnamese food or is it American? And, more important, can't it be both? Robert Newton and Kerry Diamond run the Carroll Gardens charmers Seersucker and Smith Canteen, where Newton, an expat from Arkansas who's been here for 15 years, has taken great pains to show New Yorkers that there's more to Southern cuisine than barbecue or shrimp and grits. Nightingale 9 might bill itself as a Vietnamese restaurant, and have opened its doors in a fairly homogenous quarter of Brooklyn, but here is a restaurant that celebrates the complexity of American food, often in delicious ways.
The menu involves a mix of Vietnamese-style salads, hot noodle soups, and meaty bowls of rice noodles. Bun cha ($13)—the everyday Vietnamese dish of cold vermicelli with grilled pork patties and belly meat—is made with Berkshire pork and peanuts from Aunt Ruby's in North Carolina, with a small heap of roughly textured rice noodles that turn out to be far more gratifying than they first appear. You'll be instructed to wrap that tiny fried quail ($15) from South Carolina in a sheet of lettuce with mint leaves, then squeeze over half a lime (it's tricky to eat this way, with all the bones still in, but it's worth it).
Dishes tend to be well-built and finely tuned, like the delicate salad of chilled fluke and crab ($13) set on a clamshell-shaped crisp of fried rice paper and covered with a snowfall of grated coconut. Flavors are more vibrant than Nightingale's painfully glum setting lets on (with its drab gray walls and communal tables, you could easily be sitting in a low-security-prison cafeteria). But color appears on the plate, and it's mostly green: sawtooth on thin stems and paisleys of mint and basil, ramps, chickweed, shoots of the lemony rice-paddy herb, and more. Each one is lovely and indispensable.
For dessert, there are popsicles on wooden sticks, served in the practical stainless-steel containers found in many Asian home kitchens. A palm-sugar pop ($5) with a complex caramel flavor, covered in a crunchy crumble of benne seeds and peanut brittle, is the star. It's surprisingly rich and gone too soon, which will make you wish Nightingale 9 was open during the day so you could stop in just for that. For now, though, it's dinner-only.
From the department of complaints: The vermicelli bowls are awfully stingy with the lettuce. You get one leaf only, a big one if you're lucky, and that's just enough to get you through two or three bites. There's more lettuce if you want it (and you do, of course), but in such a busy little space it can be hard to flag down a waiter to ask for it. When it comes to the pho ($12), a gentle, anise-spiked beef broth filled with brisket and eye of the round, again there are just about half of the fresh herbs you'll want to polish it off.
This is no place to sit comfortably and linger, partly because the stupid attached benches wobble every time a fellow diner shuffles in his seat, and partly because of those poor people on Smith Street peering in through the glass, hungry for collard greens and fried rice, in a hurry to eat dinner and get home in time for their nannies. But when you get down to it, Nightingale 9 is just a casual, cash-only noodle shop. So fill your belly, catch up with friends, and put back as many pints as you need to undo the knots of the day. Then get up and give someone else a go.
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