November 5, 2007 | BITE: My Journal
Is it Soup or Soap Opera at Bun?
The bride, Thao Nguyen, serenely shapes rolls to order. Photo: Steven Richter
Michael Huynh’s ambition is clearly visible -- moxie right there on the plate. With his quick sweet smile, he bluntly informed his backer at Mai House,
Drew Nieporent, that he was off to open a noodle shop for his new wife and he’d be back. So it wasn’t just new dishes he was scouting on his trip to Saigon. It was also a beautiful wife. And it didn’t hurt that he got to watch her in action right there on the line in her family restaurant. A young man’s fancy: beautiful and she cooks.
After a few ambiguous starts, the doors are open at Bun/Soho. (Let that SoHo designation be full warning that the chef who left his partners holding the bag at Bao 111 is looking at real estate in other neighborhoods too. If only I could lure him to the upper west side.)
I worry that much drama is imminent here.
Drama from the crowds fighting to get in to the narrow little cubby to eat this fabulous food on the cheap -- $5 for rolls, no dish over $12, not even duck and foie gras nem with pineapple relish and anchovy sauce or the three little baby lamb “lollipops,” delicious miniature chops with a spicy quince-and pear-chutney and a zap of anise sauce.
I see possible drama when the joint is jumping and Michael, in three places at once, can’t quite get out the food even with the kitchen externs from the French Culinary Institute chugging away at full steam. Drama if the marriage cannot survive the noodle shop. Yes, you can almost feel that tension.
It’s a last friends and family Friday evening but Bun/Soho is taking walk-ins off the street too. The chef, onetime architect and restaurant builder, the hand behind the marvelous food at Mai House, whirls and races from flame to oven, filling orders à la minute for sensational pho: intensely fragrant beef broth, with noodles of course, plus chunks of chewy sirloin and tenderest sweetbreads. Fiery chile sauce and a kind of syrupy Hoisin come alongside to elevate the heat.
The bride, Thao Nguyen, stands at the counter in another world, seemingly wrapped in serenity, her hair tightly bound, eyes black with mascara, as she fashions classic spring rolls in fragile paper, two by two, for waiters -- both freshly hatched and speedy veterans -- to carry away.
“He doesn’t like my food,” she whispers. “He criticizes my food.”
Sweetbreads enrich this fragrant beef pho. Photo: Steven Richter
Is it her noodle house? I see his name alone on tonight’s menu.
Once the place is full do they really think they can handle orders one by one: these pretty salads, the carefully cooked monkfish with deliciously stuffed endive leaves in a Chinese sausage vinaigrette, the fabulous duck confit with a giant fried duck egg and a daikon pancake I can’t stop eating?
Who will roll the shrimp and pork belly with noodles, lettuce and mint here if he does find the next spot to lease and they both move on a la Nobu? Howard Johnson could get a high school boy to make a hot fudge sundae but clam bun with star fruit, herbs, rice cracker and broth to drink on the side is not sophomore stuff.
Dessert? There is none yet. “The chef needs time to think about what he wants for dessert,” our waiter explains. Okay…time will tell.
I wish I were there right now for dinner. Tonight. Not in the gloom of the tight space at the front that we must skedaddle through side ways for a kitchen-side booth in the rear where it’s pleasantly bright. I’d order the seared tuna roll they were out of on Friday and “shaking calf liver”…whatever that is, and maybe “seven spices duck hearts and tongue” and the duck confit again, just for the daikon pancake that reminds me of Chinese turnip cake, a temptation I never resist. Who needs dessert?
143 Grand Street between Crosby and Lafayette. 212 431 7999.
An Oink, A Squeak and a Quack.
Daniel is a master of the photo op at Bar Boulud preview. Photo: Steven Richter
Does this town have passionate French charcuterie fans? I wonder. It’s been decades since even seriously French French restaurants launched with a chorus line of pâtés and terrines and fatty rilletes. Of course those were the innocent years before cholesterol was invented.
Can Bar Boulud across from Lincoln Center revive those retro cravings? I tasted almost every one of the exquisite specimens Daniel Boulud and his award-winning Parisian charcutier partner Giles Verot (France’s head cheese champion) lined up in the cement rubble of Boulud’s wine bar venture in a bid for media hype weekend before last.
What beauty. No foodie worth her own over-indulged liver could have resisted. Compôte of pistachio’d beef cheeks, ham persillé, pâtés grande mère and grand père, Lyonnais sausage in brioche, head cheese, duck pâté en croûte, and more. All of it produced in the subterranean work room at Restaurant Daniel by Sylvain Gasdon, dispatched from Paris by Verot to make Bar Boulud authentic, both traditional…and up-to-date.
Boulud plans hot sausage entrees too, plus cheeses no committed fromage-hound can resist, and come hither pastries. Will everyone be sleeping through the first act at the opera? Of course the entrepreneurial wizard from Lyon has got to get the long and tunnel-like pig-out way station open. He’s hoping for early December and if not, he’ll sit out the holidays and open in the New Year.
Italian salumi kings may sneer at these effete haute couture renderings, but they’ll be here to taste I am sure. Watch for the orange clogs.
Bar Boulud. 1900 Broadway between 64th and 65th. 212 595 0303
Waldy Smokes at Beacon
Malouf dances Thursdays at the kitchen counter. Photo: Steven Richter.
Maybe Waldy Malouf was feeling abused at Beacon. That klunky wooden construction barricade next door hardly allows for a red carpet trek to his door. What could he do? He could set up a chef’s table –actually it’s called the kitchen counter@Beacon -- in front of his exposed ovens. He would do tapas. And he could do a dance.
Well, the tapas are fine, mostly big enough to share, and at $5 to $19 (for sliced New York steak) a chance to eat small and pay gently. Our gang of four especially loved the wood oven mussels-and-clams, the fine crabcake, roasted asparagus with a fried egg, the two mini-burgers that we split, and a fabulous autumn vegetable risotto. The foie gras was not impressive. Since we started with one of the house’s sensational full-size mushroom pizzas we had to call it quits half-way through the menu.
Want to see Waldy en point? Every Thursday the counter is reserved for six people to share an $85 tasting, a real bargain since it goes on and on for eight or nine courses and can include a pricey wine if the cellar is down to its last bottle.
Our evening begins with lobster tarragon fritters with a saffron-sherry dunk and smoke curling up from dry ice lurking in your flute of kir royale. There’s even a mellow hint of smoke in the air. Then the six of us -- strangers gathered to sample the Thursday bouffe -- move to tall stools at the counter.
Not all chefs with wood-burning ovens are as fixated on smoke as Malouf. So I’m taken by surprise when the chef dishes up deliciously smoke-tinged wild striped bass, smoked on a bed of fennel with a lemony tang. The chef himself wheels and turns, fetching and dishing up. In the big open kitchen behind, his crew watches transfixed. The chef has even programmed the music. Moroccan to go with the oysters and scallops. Rockabilly with the short ribs and grits.
After the small square of wild mushroom pizza, a duo of roasted oysters, the scallop on cabbage seared in the oven, that bass and a kabocha squash plumped raviolo, Walouf says he has programmed a five-minute break at this point. “You can take a walk or a smoke or a joint or a Viagra,” he improvises, in recognition that one of tonight’s diners is a doctor whose practice focuses on male sexual vigor.
We vote to plow on, a signal for the squab, followed by a huge marrow-bone split in half with garlic and fresh grated horseradish. Yes, Waldy grating. Then short ribs with foie gras on grits. At that point the little squares of kobe beef seared on a hot stone seem much too much. Thank heaven for sorbet with roasted quince and verjus, the perfect ending with an anticlimactic overly airy chocolate soufflé alongside fabulous smoked vanilla bean ice cream.
“Oh dear, I forgot the garlic fries,” says Waldy, setting a tall cone of fries on our counter. Even the divine smell of garlic is too much after such excess. I am amazed when one of his guests pops a fry in his mouth and emits what I believe is a yum.
The largish Madeleine is to take home for breakfast. We share a cab home with new friends. I’d say this is a steal at $85 plus tip.
25 West 56th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. 212 332 0500.