April 21, 2008 | Insatiable Critic

Tet: Letter From Home 
Tet’s food brings clarion memories of home to Truyen.  Photo: Steven Richter
Tet’s food brings clarion memories of home to Truyen.  Photo: Steven Richter

        Tet is the most ambitious effort yet from Saigon-born Steven Duong, who won neighborhood hearts when he opened Nam in Tribeca so soon after 9/11 and later, O Mai on Ninth Avenue, with a trio of Vietnamese women in the kitchen.  Here, deep purple and burgundy alcoves, an illuminated sake wall and whimsical crocheted lamp shades create an oasis from Avenue A’s pell-mell crowds and occasional residual squalor.

        But the lure will be Duong’s ambitious roll call of his homeland’s northern heat and southern sweet – fiercely spicy lemongrass coated tofu, wok-sautéed greens with crispy sun-dried anchovies, salmon simmered in chile-pineapple sauce and seared red snapper on a tamarind puddle.

Fresh soft salad rolls with meat pattie are new to me. Photo: Steven Richter

        Duong’s nostalgia for this regional mix reflects growing up in Saigon with parents migrated from the North and even at this early stage, the flavors sing.  Our five have joined the last friends and family tasting before Tet’s scheduled opening and an amiable pan-Asian staff is just getting the drill, slightly off pace but remarkably easy-going as we send them back for serving spoons, a chopstick refill and ice.

        Soft rolls full of sweet meat patties waving banners of lettuce green with a peanut
Jellyfish, shrimp and cucumber salad. Photo: Steven Richter
dipping sauce are new to me.  Our fussy crew is intrigued by coconut purple yam soup, then instantly won over by a tapestry of spicing in juicy roasted five-spice quail and the fatty lushness of grilled baby back ribs, lemongrass-marinated, with honey plum gaze. Crispy egg noodles topped with a tangle of vegetables – Asian greens, shiitakes, lotus root, onion and tofu – disappears quickly. The subtly spiced roasted duck gets a bowl of pickled daikon and carrot alongside.  Starters and soups are $6 to $8; noodles $10 to $17, main courses mostly $18 or less.

        Soft palm seeds and slivered jackfruit in banana tapioca cream reminds our Saigon-born friend of her childhood.  “He has really captured those flavors,” she whispers. Unlike Michael Huynh, the wandering bad boy chef of Bun/Soho and Mai House, who won a following playing off Vietnamese memories in a contemporary American way, Duong seeks to recapture the essence of home.  

83 Avenue A between 5th and 6th Street,  212 253 0800.
Dinner Sunday through Thursday from 5:30 to 10:30 PM (Kitchen closes at 11). Friday and Saturday last seating at 11:30.
Patina Restaurant Group

Cafe Fiorello