Betel, a new Thai-Vietnamese spot in the West Village, gets its name from the aromatic leaf chewed all over South and Southeast Asia. It’s supposedly a mild stimulant, and so is the restaurant, with its irritating unch-unch clubbing music and sleek clientele who look like they stepped out of an ad.
Betel is owned by a couple of Australian guys and its main dishes are priced from $20 to $29. And because of those two things, I felt a reflexive skepticism toward the restaurant that I’m not sure is entirely justified.
This brings up two issues that I’m trying to separate out from an assessment of how good the place is–is it “authentic?” (And is it meant to be?) And why do I feel it’s overpriced, if I don’t feel that way about, say, Highlands, which is in the same neighborhood, and has a similar price range?
First, to the question of authenticity:You don’t have to be from a certain group to cook that group’s food. So the fact that it’s owned by Australians doesn’t mean much–they’re just as qualified as anyone else to learn Southeast Asian cookery or hire cooks who know their stuff. My sense is that the restaurant is going for a combination of traditional cooking methods and techniques along with a fancying up of presentation and certain pricier ingredients. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that.
So why shouldn’t a generous dish of snapper in jungle curry cost $26? No reason, except that I can get a better version at Sripraphai for $8.50. If you’re going to offer expensive versions of dishes one can get elsewhere, you’ve got to offer something more interesting or delicious than the original. It shouldn’t be that much more expensive just because you’ve got cool lighting and nice china.
So Betel is overpriced, not because Southeast Asian cuisine can’t be presented in a high-end format, but because most of the restaurant’s food is not quite good enough to justify the cost.
The vegetarian mussaman curry ($22) was actually the best dish we tried–the rich, peanutty sauce bobbing with plantain, green globe eggplant, pineapple, apple, and morning glory, or water spinach. It comes with a small dish of sliced shallots and chiles in vinegar, a condiment that brightens the heavy, sweet curry, and makes it really delicious.
Pictured above are the namesake betel leaf wraps, a vegetarian and a smoked trout version at $3 and $3.80 each. They’re zesty little bites. We particularly liked the one with the trout and its eggs, along with galangal and chile.
But then there’s this salt and pepper squid–soggy and gritty and $13.
These scallop and pork dumplings are plated nicely in a soy broth, but if you eat them with your eyes closed they taste like any old ho-hum Thai takeout dumpling. The scallops are not discernible, overwhelmed by the pork. And four dumplings cost $14.