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Bao Noodles


Anu
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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.

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Anu, that read like a professional review (indeed, its structure from first to last reminds me of New York Times reviews). In fact - and no offense, please! - it crossed my mind that it could even be publicity for the restaurant, so I decided to look through all your posts on eGullet so far, and found out that you are indeed a professional food writer:

Link here

Are you doing restaurant consulting yet? What does that consist of, anyway? If you feel like informing an ignoramus like me, perhaps we could start a new thread. :laugh::hmmm:

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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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.  .....

Did you ever write a trip report someplace or somewhere on your three week in 'nam ?

I'm looking for an opportunity to go there :smile: BTW, a very well written review.

anil

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I acutally hesitated before putting this on and it was Monica who convinced me...I've done a couple of restaurant reviews for my college alumni newsletter and am working on two articles based on my experince both backpacking in South east Asia for two months as well as working at a cooking school and restaurant in France...As for the food and rest consulting - I'm working on it - I also run my own business so things are a little crazy right now - but if you have any suggestions I"m always open

Anil - vietnam was amazing! Go!

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I wish I had suggestions, Anu, but my role in the food world is Diner. :laugh:

But I'd say this: You're an excellent, polished restaurant reviewer, so don't overlook that as a possible source of income. So perhaps I do have a suggestion, after all. :biggrin::laugh:

What's the business you're running?

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Funny, I was thinking the same thing. I've been to Bao 4x since it opened and one thing is consistent -- they do NOT have a liquor liscence. I stopped by on Saturday afternoon for one of their great soups. I believe it was called the Saigon Egg Noodle Soup. Wonderfully spiced chicken broth, a few nice slabs of tender pork, tender egg noodles, slices of scallions and 4 overcooked shrimp. Definitely the lightest and cleanest soup I have sampled at Bao.

I do agree with Anil, this is going to be the finest Vietnamese in NYC, but their kitchen still needs some time. Although their spicing has been right on, they consistently overcook their entrees. I'm sure it is just a matter of getting used to their new stoves.

Ps. Steve (the manager) told me "7 days until we get our liquor liscence" on Saturday. If you want to do a BYO dinner, get there this week.

"Your girlfriend is a vegetarian, tell her she should eat rabbit...they're vegetarians too" Ali

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I'm a bit confused? Doesn't Asimov usually give a restaurant a few months to get up and running? Bao has been open for about 3 or 4 weeks. Wonder what the rush was?

I generally love Eric's writing, knowledge and taste in food. In this case, my experieces at Bao were quite different. Bao's soups have been a consistent shining light. The Spicy Beef and Pork was excellent on both occasions I tried it. Their Saigon Egg Noodle Soup, lighter, but also excellent...particularly the broth. I added a few flakes of spiced red pepper flakes to their bun bo Hue (admission: ripped that name right out of Asimov's article) to give it a kick. The Apps are almost there (although he is spot on about the inconsistenies) and entrees are a crap shoot. The entree situation is moreso a product of fish and meats being overcooked than improperly spiced.

Id be interested to hear if there any other differing opinions.

"Your girlfriend is a vegetarian, tell her she should eat rabbit...they're vegetarians too" Ali

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Not based on extensive experience (one lunch visit actually), I'd say Bao is ok'ish. The only thing I had was a bowl of Pho - available in a number of beef combinations - I had the beef & tendon - which was not a knockout. The broth wanted for flavor (try the Rungsit noodle soup - 34th between 2nd & 3rd for beef broth with cojones :wink: for a reference). The beef was there almost as a condiment - definitely not my style. So I'd try it again and probably will but more out of a sense of duty than desire.

To give Asimov his due, he did say that the Pho was unspectacular.

Andrew

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Funny, I was thinking the same thing.  I've been to Bao 4x since it opened and one thing is consistent -- they do NOT have a liquor liscence.  I stopped by on Saturday afternoon for one of their great soups.  ......

Were we there about the same time :huh: We were by one of the two tables by the window.

anil

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  • 2 weeks later...

Anyone eat there yet? Saw the "just opened" listing in Time Out a few weeks ago, and being a fan of Vietnamese food in general, but Pho in particular, I have been wanting to check it out. Had some friends in town this past weekend, one of which wanted Pho, so I went out on a limb, and instead of trying the insanely cheap and satisfying Pho Ive had in Chinatown, we went to 23rd and 2nd to check the place out.

First off, let me say that anyone who has eaten at, say, Nha Trang or Pho Bolsa in Chinatown is familiar with the frenetic pace, and lack of ambience at these places. Bao is exactly opposite. Its a well laid out and styled Bistro feeling place. There is a far more noticeable french feel to not only the space, but in the dishes as well.

You'll pay about 7 bucks for a large bowl of Pho at BAO, a couple bucks more than your average Chinatown place, but the ability to relax and enjoy the meal in a nice comfortable surrounding justifies the expense. The oxtail brothed Pho with Tripe and flank steak satisfied the seemingly insatiable appetite of my Vietnamese friend (what I wouldnt give to eat like him and not weigh more than a buck and a half soaking wet). I ordered the Dha Nang style Crab Noodle Soup. A rich mildly flavored brother, thicker than one would expect, was the base for Udon type noodles found within. There was a slight spicy bite to the finish. A nice touch that kept me from feeling the need to enhance with any of the condiments normally servede with Vietnamese noodle bowls. The soup was liberally topped with large chunk of delicious, fresh crab meat. Definitely the real deal, not Krab. The mild taste of the broth didnt overwhelm the subtle crab flavor. A very satisfying dish.

The star of the day however, was the Braised Pork Belly. Deliciously tender, the marinade liquid was flavored with ginger and soy and garlic and left me wanting more, though the portion was MORE than equitable with the 5 dollar price tag. I would have wished for more of a de-fatting of the liquid, but this is afterall pork Belly and while it was heavier than it might have needed to be, it certianly didnt detract from te overall flavor of the dish.

We all finished up with Vietnamese Coffees, and then back onto the streets, satisfied and lookingforward to another visit. I think I might have to choose from one of the four course, regional dinner selections from the "Family Meal" portion of the menu.

I would recommend for lunch or a casual relatively cheap dinner with friends. They do have a bar, so the ease of staying and chatting, post meal, over a few drinks would be easy to do.

I would recommend Bao Noodles highly.

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  • 2 years later...

I had dinner at Bao tonight with two family members. I was still pretty full from a late lunch at Teresa's, so I mostly picked at the dishes the others ordered. I liked the food.

We shared a papaya salad, which I found uncriticizable, with one major exception: The cilantro (I chewed one sprig) tasted weird, to the extent that I spat it out. But otherwise, I thought the salad had a perfect balance of sweet, sour, spicy, and salty/fishy (from fish sauce; the shrimps were fresh-tasting).

I subsequently had a bite of a banh mi gai, which was quite nice though not as great as the one I had at Banh Mi Saigon Bakery. The chicken was nicely marinated and grilled.

My mother got a shrimp main dish which was good but which I found very subtle; it didn't blow me away but was fine.

The waterspinach with garlic was a good accompaniment. I thought it could have stood to have more garlic, but again, it was fine.

We also shared a dessert, yuca flour waffles with coconut cream, something else that was syrupy (probably cane syrup?), and pieces of pineapple that had been in some kind of red berry sauce (strawberry sauce?). The dessert was very pleasant.

Total bill including tea (with refill of water) and one Brooklyn Lager was some $56 plus tip. I think that's a fair price for the neighborhood.

If I lived closer, I'd go from time to time. As it is, I am likely to have occasion to walk past the place for some more days and may try the pho next time. Service was good, the ambiance was pleasant (just a bit dark for my taste, but fine), and the place seems like a very solid neighborhood restaurant to me.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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My mother and I went back to Bao for dinner tonight. Everything was very good. We started with the papaya salad. It might have been a bit sweeter this time, but the cilantro was OK today. We followed with Da Nang Style Crab Meat Noodle Soup, which was very soothing and smooth -- good both with and without hot sauce. We then shared Salt & Pepper Tiger Shrimp (a waitress recommendation), which was really nicely grilled and accompanied by a tasty sort of shallot slaw. The only criticism I could make was that the tomato slices were a bit mealy. For dessert, we had a molten chocolate cake with little pieces of pineapple, that I decided are soaked in a non-alcoholic punch, and black sesame ice cream. At first, I felt like I would be bored with yet another molten chocolate cake, but this was darker and more bitter than usual and met with my approval. The black sesame ice cream was excellent, and seemed to have been made with coconut milk instead of (or conceivably in addition to) cream.

Including jasmine tea for me, the bill was just over $44 plus tip. I like this place.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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I should add something more about the ambiance. This place is a bar/restaurant, and the music playing on the sound system is a mix of classic rock and disco, sometimes at a loud volume, sometimes not (there was also a loud table for the first part of our visit tonight). I believe the target audience of this establishment is people around my age (40) and younger. If you would be really disturbed by listening to songs like "Fly, Robin, Fly" (which is running through my head right now, after having heard it twice in my first visit and once in my second), you might not want to go to Bao. On the other hand, if you like classic rock (60s, 70s) and disco, that might make a trip to Bao more pleasurable for you. A friend suggested that they may be deliberately playing what are more or less Vietnam War-era songs -- a thought that hadn't occurred to me and may or may not be an accurate perception of the motivation behind their music choices.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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