NYC Restaurants

BarBao

CLOSED!

100 West 82nd St
New York, NY, 10024
(212) 501-0776 Map

Cuisine: Vietnamese

Menu:   View the Menu

Reader Ratings:

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Cititour Review:

Though I’d love to go, I’ve never been to Vietnam. Friends who have been come home raving about the countryside, the architecture and the food (both street and restaurant food, too.) When I do make it over there, I know this much. I plan on eating my way through the country. While I know I’ll find a lot of food that I’ve never seen or heard of before (and possibly some foods that I will be too freaked out to eat), I do feel like I’ve gotten a good culinary primer on the country’s indigenous eats from one of our city’s best known Vietnamese chefs, Michael “Bao” Huynh.

Huynh first hit my radar when he opened Bao 111, a sweet little Vietnamese outpost in the East Village. I remember making many trips to Avenue C to satisfy cravings for melting hunks of braised short ribs skewered on lemongrass. Later on at Bao Noodles, which he opened in Gramercy in 2002, I would practically sleepwalk over to his restaurant for crispy whole snapper and bowls of vermicelli noodles decorated with fresh fistfuls of cilantro, braised pork belly and fat juicy just charred shrimp. Oddly, he sold off his interest in his Bao restaurants, but his name started hitting the food press pages again when he teamed up with Drew Nieporent to open Mai House, a more upscale Vietnamese restaurant located in the former Tribakery space. I had some good meals at Mai House—I remember being very committed to finishing every last bit of chicken in a clay pot—but the partnership went south. Despite Huynh’s fall, like a spry cat, Huynh landed feet first in a sweet new deal with Main Street Restaurant Group (Calle Ocho, BLT Prime) to reconceptualize and revitalize their long time Upper West Side restaurant, Rain.

Clearing out Rain’s Pan-Asian fare, Huynh has put his Vietnamese stamp on the menu, peppering it with his signatures: short ribs on lemongrass skewers, baby lamb lollipops, clay pot chicken, crispy whole snapper, and bowls of vermicelli. It’s a menu that will appeal to couples looking for a bite at the long lazy serpentine bar where cocktails are mixed from sake, vodka, gin and rum, paired up with fresh juices like lemongrass, lychee, and passion fruit, or groups of friends more interested in a big family-style dinner in the stunning dining room. Yes indeed, the menu is not the only thing that’s been made over. The restaurant is virtually unrecognizable from its prior self.

Designed by wünderkind Jason Volnec (Allen & Delancey, Elettaria) with an eclectic selection of vintage mirrors, tufted chairs, and salvaged period pieces, walls hand-papered with a collage of vintage Mao posters, and a striking ceiling made from planks of bamboo, the restaurant feels sexy and inviting, like a cross between a Victorian parlor and a French-Vietnamese lounge in a posh hotel in Saigon.

Craig and I had dinner at BarBao last week and not surprisingly found it packed with various members of the industry—press, media, and restaurateurs. When restaurants first open, it’s pretty common, and it was nice to catch up with a few friends before settling in with an array of small plates to get the evening started.

There are over a dozen snacks to choose from, and while I’d like to say that you will be wowed by them all, you won’t be; you’ll be wowed by half. While the sweet Dungeness crab salad is loaded up with so much sweet lump crabmeat you’ll almost want to pay twice its $14 price tag, but it lacks the brightness in seasoning that you expect from Vietnamese food. I expected to find fresh herbs and perhaps some chile peppers tangled up with the crab and rice noodles. Instead, I found lots of luscious meat in a noodle salad that was as bland as white bread. Bummer. The sweetbreads ($12), which the menu promised would be accompanied by pickled white peaches, bitter melon and pork belly vinaigrette, also missed their mark. While the sweetbreads were plump and nicely seared, the pickled peaches and bitter melon were not integrated well into the dish; they seemed more like garnish than necessary players and therefore got lost. And the pork belly vinaigrette didn’t seem either porky or vinegary. Hmm.

We’d heard raves about the Daikon Rice Cake ($9), topped with duck confit and a one our poached egg, but we didn’t get it. The daikon rice cake was not formed into a cake at all, it was really a collection of daikon rice cubes, tossed with some duck confit and topped with a rather puny poached egg with a tiny little yolk that didn’t cover the surface area of the daikon or the duck. I love the idea of this dish and it has potential, but it fell far short of it last week.

Thankfully, summer rolls ($8), which can be stuffed with your choices of duck, shrimp, short ribs or Berkshire pork, are fat and flavorful crowd pleasers, as are the crispy deep-fried spring rolls filled with a savory mix of mushrooms, tofu, and jicama ($9). Baby lamb lollipops ($14)—really just baby lamb chops—are impossibly simple but they could have been Kobe beef ribs they were so juicy and meaty. They inspired each of us to gnaw for some time at the bones for any last bits. And if you were a fan of Huynh’s short ribs on lemongrass skewers (10), you’ll be very happy to find them here.

It seems there is an inconsistency to the food at BarBao that makes me feel like the kitchen has not quite found its rhythm. While small plates for the most part let us down, our entrees are this kitchen’s stronger point, or at least that’s the way it played out last Monday, in the nail-biting hours before Election Day. A roasted Guinea hen ($23) didn’t seem particularly Vietnamese but it as golden-skinned and terrific—served in a cast-iron roasting pan on a ragout of “street style” corn that’s charred so it’s as sweet as sugar. I’d have eaten it for dessert. His crispy whole red snapper ($26) is as good as I remember it from Bao Noodles. The snapper is coiled into a semi-circle and set around a mound of deep-fried hunks of fish (this makes for very easy eating) bathed in a cheek-puckering sauce made from plum tomatoes, pineapple and sticky spicy sweet and sour sauce.

A big bowl of Vermicelli noodles ($14) that can be topped with your choice of hanger steak, Berkshire pork, shrimp or veggies, also brought back memories of Huynh’s restaurant’s past. A beautiful glazed ceramic bowl is piled high with silken ivory noodles, refreshing cucumber salad, fresh aromatic herbs and chopped peanuts. It’s accompanied by a bowl of charm sauce (a vivid sweet and sour sauce) on the side for seasoning just the way you like it. (I like a lot of it.) And if you’re a fan of sticky rice ($4), Huynh’s is secreted with coins of Chinese sausage. It should be by all means be ordered for the table.

At the moment, the restaurant doesn’t really have a dessert menu but they do offer a great tea and coffee selection and a very good panna cotta made from pandam and gingko nuts that we passed between us, sharing spoonfuls until the bowl was bare and it was time to go home and get ready to vote the next day.

BarBao will no doubt improve as it grows into itself with some time. Even with the misses on the small plates, the restaurant is a solid addition to the Upper West Side. There’s a welcoming and generous sense of hospitality, and aesthetically speaking, it’s a wildly inviting place to drink and to dine whether with a date, your parents, or a big bunch of friends (the cushy oversized semi-circular banquettes are perfect for these sorts of group outings). I’m still hoping to make it to Vietnam one of these days for my culinary marathon. But in the meantime, I’ll take the C Train to 81st Street.

Review By: Andrea Strong

Neighborhood: West 80s

Chef: Michael Huynh


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