Vietnam – Hot jungles, fragrant fruits, fields of rice, steaming bowls of sweet and spicy sauces… All sights, scents, and images that come to mind after three weeks traversing the country from North to South this spring. Traditionally associated with the controversial war of the 70’s, this South Asian ex-colony rapidly disappeared from the American radar after the end of the War. However, in recent years, Vietnamese food as a mainstream cuisine is slowly approaching the forefront of the urban American palate, as an explosion of restaurants, both Vietnamese and French Vietnamese, appear across the nation, notably in larger cities with immigrant populations. However, for the most part, there is no mistaking these new and trendy restaurants with your local Chinese takeout. Minimalist décor, lounge music, sexy cocktails and an urban scene, are identifying features evoking a beautiful melding of French influence in style, and Vietnamese tastes. To be fair, I can say that my relative familiarity of the cuisine after traveling in Vietnam, in combination with my self proclaimed obsession with food, made me quite a critical eye and tongue to any Vietnamese dining establishment in the city. I wanted my pho to be perfect, my summer rolls to be filled with fresh herbs and perfectly seasoned meat – my fish to be grilled with a mouthwatering nam pla. On a recent trip to Vietnam , I not only went to the obligatory museums, galleries, tourist spots, but paid equal if not more importance to exploring and understanding what makes up the essence of Vietnamese cuisine. Where in New York would one find banana flower salad? Not in your local Saigon Grill, that’s for sure. For a budding foodie like myself, many enjoyable afternoons were spent roaming the market stalls in search of the perfect summer rolls, evening meals taken squatting on low stools with local shopkeepers slurping away bowls of pho, sharing an appreciation of the quintessentially simple but basic Vietnamese meal. Another obsession became inspecting fruit seller stands on my quest to find the most luscious, plump and juicy mangosteen ever – truly a fruit of the gods - a fragrant combination of scents and flavors of lychee and rose. I marveled at the spiciness of Northern cuisine and adored the incorporation of the fresh vegetables and fruits from the Mekong Delta into Southern cuisine. Upon returning back to NY, I was at a loss –where could I eat that would even come close to replicating the culinary delights, I sampled on a daily basis on my trip. I was about to find out. Bao Noodles – the little sister of Bao 111 opened recently, tucked away in no mans land, on 2nd Ave between 22nd and 23rd St, almost transported me back – almost. Granted the lounge music and hip NY’ers were not entirely part of the authentic experience, however my taste buds were almost convinced otherwise. Bao opened just last month following in the footsteps of its successful older sister Bao 111. With its welcoming wooden tables, lovely Vietnamese artwork, inviting bar and authentic cuisine; the new Bao uses many of the same tricks as 111 to earn credit for its work. Starting with the sexy and enticing cocktail menu, one is convinced to stay - linger over an exotic cocktail such as the Kumquat Martini with Stoli Vanilla, Cointreau and orange juice , or slowly sip a Mekong Fizz, with plum sake, lychee’s and champagne, or enjoy the fresh berry flavor of blackberry infused sake in a Bonsai Berry. After a healthy sampling of the alcholic options, my dining companion and I decided we were ready to test out the menu -divided into two options – family style dining or a la carte. Both options offer advantages; each suitable based on hunger levels, size of groups etc. The family style option can be attractive for some, where for the modest price of $20, each member of your group shares a total of four dishes. Reflecting the attention to regional cuisine, one can choose between dining Mekong River Style, Hanoi Style, Saigon Style or Hue style. A sampling of side dishes ranging from Sautéed bean sprouts with garlic chives to braised pork belly, all $5 and under can be added to complement the main menu. Opting for the a la carte is the option #2. My dining companion and I choose this route and started with the Beef Salad on a bed of watercress and Grilled Eggplant with Shrimp and Crabmeat suggested by our bartender. Perfectly spiced andlightly grilled, the simplicity of the beef salad won me over in a second. My companion complained about the lack of chili, but in Vietnamese food, chili is less of a focal flavor and more of an addition. The eggplant salad on the other hand, was definitely a tad too bland for me with large unwieldy pieces and not enough crab or shrimp. For those sticking to the classics, both summer and spring rolls rate amongst some of the best I’ve had in the city. Shrimp paste on sugar cane is another unusual option. Pho, the classic Vietnamese noodles in oxtail soup, turned up in various forms, topped with rare beef rounds, cooked with crab meet, and mixed into a beef and pork stew. Credit goes to diversifying past the simple and redundant versions though we choose to pass on the soup. Instead, we opted for an excellent fish dish that I couldn’t help but order after seeing a beautiful picture in a recent write up – Crispy Whole Snapper with Tamarind Sauce or Ca chien sort me – a whole fish, separated into lightly fried bite size pieces, crisped on the outside and melting on the inside, artfully arranged on top of the frame of leaping fish – surrounded by a sauce of sweet and sour goodness – truly a culinary masterpiece. Water spinach with garlic (Rau muong xao toi) provided the ideal companion and I was in heaven. Sautéed Beef in Coconut Curry Sauce, Salt and Pepper Deep Fried Calamari were several other highly recommended options. With an overwhelming feeling of culinary satisfaction , I almosted lick my lips before even contemplating dessert. However, dessert at Bao is yet to be established on the menu, with the daily special being sold out by the time we ordered. Satisfying my sweet tooth was the Vietnamese coffee, creamy and sweet, flavored traditionally with condensed milk. Prices at Bao are completely reasonable with the most expensive entrée – Mom’s Special Steamed Bass, pricing at a mere $17. Appetizers range between $5 - $7 and unlike many restaurants, one can order sides of chicken and various other meats and vegetables to complement the main meal. So how would one classify Bao Noodles in the spectrum of the ever-dynamic NY restaurant scene – A great place for dates – classy but comfortable ambiance – friendly staff and most importantly – the most authentic Vietnamese food on this side of the river. Discover Bao before it gets discovered…. Bao Noodles: 391 Second Avenue, btw 22nd and 23rdSt. (212) 725 7770. Subway: 6 to 23rd. Lunch Dinner, Average Main Course: $12.