May 3, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

DOB 111: Bao the Scorpion

For now, chef Michael “Bao” Huynh focuses on his new DOB111. Photo: Steven Richter
For now, chef Michael “Bao” Huynh focuses on his new DOB111. Photo: Steven Richter

        As he cuts his deadly swath through Manhattan restaurants, expanding his empire in shabby little holes, one tricked out after another while his partnerships wither, Michael “Bao” Huynh deserves to be, at the very least, ignored. Alas, I’m perversely mesmerized. I loved his food at Bao 111 before he moved on to Mai House where the kitchen was brilliant before he moved on to Bun which was extraordinary before he abandoned it and became a partner at BarBao, opened with so much hope and style and investment before he moved on to Baoguette and Pho Sure…and on…and on.  His restaurants have been wonderful…at least for the first month. That’s what I’m telling my friends tonight at the week-old DOB 111, which stands for “Date of Birth November 1,” his own, he explains, a Scorpio quite delighted with his cleverness.

The green garlic soup reminds me of his fabulous yam porridge. Photo: Steven Richter

        Though it’s Thursday and St. Mark’s Place is bustling, only one other table is working at DOB.  “It’s early,” Huynh shrugs “We just opened. And the waiter is out so I’ll be your waiter tonight.”  He takes my order and then suggests we should not miss the spring garlic soup.

        He’s right.  It’s wonderful.  Two orders get divided into six bowls for our sixsome on request. A spicy variation on the fabulous mountain yam soup I fell in love with when I first discovered him cooking on Avenue C – not quite heated through perhaps, but equally luscious with delicately cooked rock shrimp and bits of Chinese sausage.

Daikon duck egg hash with duck egg comes with nicely rare duck. Photo: Steven Richter

        There’s something hasty about this menu, as if the chef threw it together without much thought, other than upping his usual prices for entrees – still modest enough at $15 to $18.  It reads like he’s torn between riffs of dishes his fans love - daikon duck hash is a must - and not wanting to tread on what’s working at Bia Garden, borrowing some fusion ideas from the defunct BarBao.

Our sixsome love quail. “Mind of lamb” ravioli is a tougher sell. Photo: Steven Richter

        When you smash the slow poached egg into the soy truffle emulsion where deftly fried sweetbreads float with slivers of chanterelle, it gets soupy, too soupy, and we need bowls and spoons, not forks.  I am more thrilled than my companions about “mind of lamb” ravioli – a cagey way to present brains in a town with only scattered fans. The controversial offal invisible inside papery wrappers with carefully cooked prawns in a coral sauce makes the dish easy to love.

Scallop trio on cauliflower almond puree with Chinese bacon. Photo: Steven Richter

        And a juicy rare quail satay with jicama and mango salad and peanut sauce is a lovely bird that two might easily divide for just $10. A trio of seared sea scallops on cauliflower almond purée with Chinese bacon and green curry is an easier sell with those tasting Huynh’s food for the first time, even with its piquant trail of dried fish essence from a touch of XO sauce.

Designer Huynh works on a budget but the place is charming. Photo: Steven Richter

        Our Scorpio earned his way designing and building restaurants before his partners propped him up for a smashing success at Bao111. He tricked up this little spot himself on a tight budget, I’m guessing, but it’s charming with giant palms painted on the wall behind us, a plant he might have found at the curb, pages from a Vietnamese book papering the bar and loo, and stripes of collage across the room. And he figures he’s covered for the next attack of wanderlust with a chef from the defunct Bar Bao tending pots.

A hodgepodge of spicy oxtail, green papaya, lotus root, yucca and horseradish gnocchi is a favorite. Photo: Steven Richter

        As usual with me in Baoland, I’ve ordered too much. I can’t help myself since I never know how long any venture will prosper.  Spicy oxtail stew with green papaya, lotus root, yucca and horseradish gnocchi is my favorite, but our chef guest prefers crispy pork belly with taro sausage mash and pickled vegetable. Black cod glazed with bean curd nests in palm heart purée is good enough and even normally boring filet mignon comes alive in the wok served with spicy cress, spicy salsa and tangy avocado lime purée.  The side of daikon duck hash I ordered is delivered on a platter with delicious slices of kaffir lime basted duck breast and a fried egg, gift of the chef.

Spicy cress, zesty salsa and tangy avocado lime purée give pizazz to filet. Photo: Steven Richter

        On the way to the ladies room, I stop to thank him for the duck.  He’s at his computer, propped open on the bar, checking out the menu of the famous Kogi Korean taco truck in Los Angeles. “How can a truck win best chef of the year in Food and Wine magazine?” he asks.

        “You’re just annoyed they didn’t choose you,” I say.

       “No. Look at this menu. It isn’t right.  Daniel’s guy is a best chef. The other guys, they’re chefs. In the history of best chefs, a truck shouldn’t belong."

       "I hear you and your wife are split,” I say.

       He laughs.  “Where you hear that? We’re always together. I tell her she works too hard. Needs to rest.”

      “From her. I called her at Baoguette and Thao Noodles for help reaching you and she said, ‘Don’t call here. No more Michael. It’s finished.’”

Wife Thao Nguyen sulks over what she calls Michael's neglect. Photo: Steven Richter

        I emerge from the WC.  He hands me the cell phone.  “Talk to her,” he says. “She’ll tell you.”

       “He says you’re still together,” I report to Thao.

       She doesn’t skip a beat. “No more. We’re finished.  He doesn’t help me.” I repeat her message to Michael. He looks shocked. How quickly blog fodder descends into soap opera. But about dinner, pretty good, and just $30 per person. I’ll probably come back – if it’s is still here next time I need another Huynh fix. I’m curious to taste clam chowder tom yum style with rice paddy herbs.

       By the way, I did a search just now for the website on DOB’s card -- and Google asked: “Did you mean"  Is Google brilliant or what?

115 St. Mark’s Place between lst Avenue and Avenue A. 212 228 2500. Sunday through Thursday


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