UPDATE: THIS RESTAURANT IS NOW CLOSED.
Neighborhood: Capitol Hill
A fairly hyped restaurant with a modernized take on Vietnamese food opening up actually inside the city limits? How could I not rush over there immediately? After a failed attempt to bring Official Dad of DCWD DV there, I rallied fellow Viet and Official Friend of DCWD Chi as well as Official Friend of DCWD Wills along for a lunch date.
Probably half because of its location, and half because of its concept, Ba Bay eschews the normal conventions of Asian restaurants (thank God) in favor of a more modern, let's call it post-industrial vibe. The space sits on the newly gentrified row of Pennsylvania Avenue in SE, and matches the rest of the neighborhood; open windows that bring natural light into the faux warehouse space, and a color scheme of dark brown, beige, and sage green. The furnishings are best described as austere, simple wood and metal tables and chairs, with half-booth seating along one wall, where the two-tops are, leading into the small wooden bar in the back. The rest of the decor is best described as elegant touches out of a Pottery Barn catalog: wooden slats along the walls and ceilings, light bulbs in woven picnic baskets serving as lanterns above each table, and a leafless ornamented tree on a butcher's table in the center of the dining area. It's a clean and clear space, without being overly cute.
Here is what we need to establish before anything else, what will become a central theme to this review: this isn't authentic Vietnamese and it isn't pretending to be. This restaurant is attempting to take traditional domestic and street food and morph those flavors into something a little more refined. So as much as the two Vietnamese diners at our table wanted it to be home cooking, we had to keep in mind that it wasn't trying to be.
What was Vietnamese about the whole experience was the sheer mass of food we ordered. Round one brought out three starter dishes, along with a cinnamon-plum tea that the waitress talked me into (pleasantly sweet and worth ordering, though expensive). The first was a chicken liver mousse with sweet mustard and toast, served on a charcuterie board. This was smooth, without being overly aggressive, and both Wills and I thought the mustard was a pretty inspired addition, as the sweetness balanced out the liver's natural salt and grittiness.
With this also came the first course of Chi's prix fixe: a purple cabbage and carrot salad with peanuts and herbs with a soy dressing. A pretty traditional rendering of every Vietnamese goi I've had (including one my mom made over Thanksgiving) minus the meat, except that the soy-based dressing was surprisingly sweet. Combined with the generous size of the portion, it was a good surprise.
The last of the first courses was the chili-glazed wings with scallions, a dish that the owner was so proud of that he decided, during our short conversation, to send out an order for us (possibly because he was happy to see two Vietnamese people in his place, possibly because he saw my notebook). I can definitely see why people like the dish; the glaze has all the piquant of traditional nuoc cham and the chicken is cooked well. For me, it just missed that wow factor of being unique. Maybe if you've only been eating regular BBQ wings, but if you're used to Viet flavors, it's par for the course.
Part two of the meal brought our main courses. Wills stuck with what he knew, and ordered a bowl of pho tai gan sach, traditional Vietnamese Tonkinese noodle soup with rare ribeye, tripe, and soft tendon. I've said before that pho from places without pho in the name are usually not good, owing to the fact that the same level of care isn't paid to the broth. This was a welcome exception. The broth was strong, and the closest anyone's come to the combination of oil, anise, and beef that my mom uses. The local sourcing and higher quality of the ribeye gave the tai a great taste, and the chilis in the broth gave it a nice kick. Overall, surprisingly good.
Chi's second dish was a rice congee (or what we know as chao) with almond milk poached rockfish, fermented black bean, and cilantro. I've said before that chao reminds me of home, as it's one of the food panaceas that Vietnamese grandmothers use to cure all ailments. This one was definitely not traditional; there was a creaminess to it that I just couldn't place, something that just made it feel a little off. Not necessarily worse, just not up my alley. That being said, the rockfish was great here, so in totality it was a good bite.
The two of them also ordered a side of brussel sprouts in sweet chili butter. This was okay; we all wished they'd cooked the brussel sprouts just a little bit longer so that it could become softer and thus more buttery.
For my part, I ordered two main courses: pork belly with clams and Thai basil in a Thai chili broth, and a turmeric crepe of tamarind trout, bean sprouts and Viet herbs with a ginger dipping sauce. The first course was an interesting combination, and definitely one I'd never seen before. But pork belly is a core part of Vietnamese cuisine and the broth brought out more of the umami flavors of the meat. The dish definitely got the crisp right, though missed a little on the butteriness that usually accompanies eating the fatty portions, and the clams were fairly insignificant.
I was definitely much more impressed by my second entree, which I correctly guessed as an interpretation of the Vietnamese banh xeo (the menu uses little if any Vietnamese words, so it was a guessing game ordering). Instead of the traditional pork or shrimp is a filet of trout, and the dish replaces the usual globs of soy beans for a much thinner, much crispier crepe. Here is the best example of where the restaurant's attempt to modernize Vietnamese food is a success. It gets rid of my least favorite part of banh xeo, the clusterbombs of soy beans you get once in a while, and adds in an interesting flavor and texture with the trout, along with the a kick from the ginger in the nuoc cham. There are a few drawbacks (I love cilantro and mint, but if you don't, it's loaded with a lot of those two herbs; the thinner crepe means it gets soggy and mushy faster), but otherwise a very enjoyable bite.
The last round was Chi's dessert, a banana cake with curried chocolate and peanut brittle. The cake was fine, typical Vietnamese dessert, but the curried chocolate was too aggressive, reminiscent of coffee and overpowered the subtlety of the cake. Wish we had gone with some other desserts.
For authenticity, I'd still make the trek out to Falls Church and Eden Center. But if I'm craving something both Vietnamese and a little more mainstream, Ba Bay is a great choice. In and of itself, I don't love it; but for it's location, and combination of Viet flavors and American culinary sensibilities, it's definitely recommended. On some level, based on it's freshman appearance, it soon might even challenge Four Sisters for the high-end Viet food crown.
Food Rating: **** (out of 5)
Date Rating: 3.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code: Casual
Bar Rating: Quiet Drinks
Cost: $$$ (out of 5) ($50-$75 for two)
Pairing: Eastern Market. Need I say more? So good, that we might make it the next DC Date Idea...