By Elana Schor - 03/03/11 11:49 PM EST
Modernism is easy to spot on the page, especially for collegiate English majors, but how the concept succeeds at the dining table is much less clear. Does modern food offer high-tech flourishes or quirky ingredients? Should it boggle the mind with plate design or go back to basics?
Those are the questions admirably tackled at Ba Bay, a sleek new boîte in the shadow of Eastern Market that promises modern Vietnamese that still pays homage to the classics. The restaurant’s appellation, after all, mirrors the nickname of the owner’s grandmother (Ba Bay means “Madame Seven”). In walking the line between modernism and traditionalism, however, the kitchen ends up riffing on the second form more often than the first — and for satisfied diners, that’s a good thing.
To wit: On one of my visits, the hipster bartender was found delivering a fragrant bowl of noodles to a single woman and glasses of wine to a couple who cradled their infant as they sipped. The happy-hour menu, served Tuesday through Thursday, invites such relaxed multi-course affairs by knocking the price down on two worthy draft beers and the tasty but sadly mild banh mi, a type of Vietnamese hoagie.
In fact, the banh mi serves as a perfect example of chef Nicholas Sharpe’s talent for not-so-modern modernist cooking. The simple sandwich has been elevated to an art form in New York City, where chefs are stocking it with baked catfish, green mangoes and kielbasa.
But the version I tasted at Ba Bay had no such embellishments (too postmodern?), only a row of gingery and piquant pork meatballs atop lush mayonnaise and a tangle of crunchy, refreshing pickled vegetables and herbs. It’s a perfectly good banh mi, but modern it isn’t.
The same goes for the excellent house-made pâté with zesty tamarind mustard and the chicken-liver mousse, which continue the flair for artisanal charcuterie that Sharpe honed at Sonoma, the popular Capitol Hill wine bar where he formerly steered the ship. Both dishes are complex and well-spiced, big enough for two or even three to share as a first course, but neither qualifies as breaking the mold.
The most satisfying dishes on hand, in fact, stick to presentations that would be out of place at speedy Vietnamese standbys in Georgetown and pho noodle shops in Arlington but take few culinary risks. Double-fried to sweet-heat perfection and piled in a generous portion beneath a shower of scallions, the chili-glazed wings are an inspired, upscale take on their inferior buffalo-wing cousins. The purple-cabbage salad plays a dual role of palate-cleansing roughage and versatile garnish, with its fish-sauce dressing and peanut topping harkening to the green-papaya versions often found on Vietnamese takeout menus.
Another not-too-modern crowd pleaser is the autumn roll, a rice-papery summer roll gone for a dip in batter. It emerges with its interior egg and sausage texturally enhanced but an earthy peanut sauce identical to the one that accompanies its traditional antecedent. The savory pancake, meanwhile, dares to be different and misses the mark with a consistency too dense to stand up to its sparse shrimp filling. Better to try the savory crepe that enfolds more herbs and thick trout in an entrée that almost perfectly nails the banh xeo served on Saigon streets. If Sharpe’s crew is nudged, perhaps they can begin using their crepe batter for the appetizer pancake.
The dishes are billed as a la carte servings, which can inspire hungry new arrivals to over-order and worry about the menu’s occasionally high price points. But the majority of larger plates, such as the boulder-sized bowl of fortifying rice noodles in a salty, slurp-worthy shrimp broth, are big enough for two.
Of course, whether Ba Bay fully executes its self- described modernism is unlikely to be on the minds of most visitors. Like any pack of well-educated workaholics, Washingtonians tend to look out first and foremost for their personal preferences, from carnivores to vegetarians, sweet-tooths to wine snobs.
Diners in all four of those categories can find something to love at the restaurant, though vegetarians might have to work harder than the others. Aside from offering to swap out the fish-based vinaigrette on the cabbage salad, the kitchen makes no moves to tweak its meat-heavy menu when asked. Fortunately, the side dishes proved ample enough to satisfy my no-animals companion, who raved about the squash in thick, sweet coconut-milk sauce and the Brussels sprouts in feather-light sweet chili butter.
The cocktail list’s only sin is its abridged length. A stellar house-made ginger ale adds grownup spice to a remixed Moscow Mule, and a blend of rum, elderflower liqueur and milk punch — a bourbon-based drink popular in New Orleans, home to a large Vietnamese community — goes down Goldilocks-smooth, not too sweet and not too savory.
The wine offerings are just as stellar, particularly the refreshing and reasonably priced Spanish verdejo and a California pinot noir that adds welcome fruit notes to the saltier dishes. To pair with dessert, however, try the tempranillo, its peppery bite bouncing perfectly off the gooey delight of a caramelized banana cake covered in curried chocolate cream and snappy peanut brittle.
Incredibly, that banana dessert is the ho-hum player in a final course designed by sous and pastry chef Sara Siegel, who cut her teeth under superchef Mario Batali and has the props to show for it. Her black sesame cake takes a flavor rarely well-executed in sweets and lets coconut ice cream bring out the best in its airy texture, while the lemongrass pot-de-crème packs a rich punch in its throwback to Vietnam’s French colonial history.
Those desserts are welcome reminders of the thrills authentic Vietnamese cuisine can deliver when not served in a Sriracha-soaked takeout box. And they prove, as the entire Ba Bay experience does, that “modernism” only takes a meal so far. Sometimes a return to the basics can dare to be just that.