July 19, 2010 | BITE: My Journal
Steven Duong is warm and welcoming at Co Ba on Ninth Avenue. Photo: Steven Richter
Spotlight on the yin and yang of Vietnamese food: Co Ba, a weenie new storefront from Steven Duong in Chelsea - unassuming, modest, welcoming, smartly dressed, takes reservations, very yin. And Má Pêche - a sprawling midtown canteen in the basement of The Chambers Hotel on 56th Street, another no-reservation bang from Momofuku Lion David Chang, confident in plywood with a communal table in the shape of a cross in the middle, so butch there are no desserts.
Má Pêche has a butch plywood motif in the Chambers Hotel cellar. Photo: Steven Richter
I doubt if the name Steven Duong will resonate with even our town’s certified foodiots as a pioneer of Vietnamese cooking in New York. When traffic was still closed below 14th Street after 9/11, he bravely opened Nam on Reade Street. Long before bad boy Michael Huynh found his groove with yam soup and tapioca pudding at Bao 111 and went on to grow his mini empire of heartbreak and pocket-size storefronts, there was Duong, cribbing from the street stalls of Saigon in l997 at Cyclo on First Avenue with the lamp shades made from U.S. government maps of Vietnam. Even now I haven’t forgotten Cyclo’s mysterious nuttiness of minced monkfish to scoop up with shards of sesame crackers. I hope he’ll recycle it at Co Ba.
Fried shallots add crunch to Co Ba’s plum-glazed pork on rice ravioli. Photo: Steven Richter
Meanwhile, I can’t wait to return for another taste of the steamed coconut rice cake under a scatter of ground pork, jicama, wood ear mushrooms, and roasted sun-dried shrimp and the grilled honey-plum-glazed pork on rice ravioli with cucumber and bean sprouts in a haze of basil and cilantro. Shallot crisps are everywhere, adding an appealing crunch.
Chef Ho wraps a pastry stick into Má Pêche’s muscular pork rolls. Photo: Steven Richter
I would be happy also to go back tonight to sample more of chef Tien Ho’s muscular Vietnamese-French dishes at Má Pêche -- well, whatever is his, or whatever leapt from the Chang cerebrum, fount of Momofuku Ko’s two Michelin stars. The tall subterranean room seems deliberately, defiantly boring. Especially if you remember how sexy Town was in the same space with sophisticated frippery from David Rockwell. Now the only grace is illumination glowing from behind stretches of peach fabric and an easy, not too noisy, mix on the stereo: country, Modest Mouse, Hendrix, Stones. I can handle the bare wood seats, stern though they are. At least they have backs, unlike the mean stools at Chang’s Lower East Side feederies. The corrugated paper napkins and a handful of chopsticks in a glass on each table are a monosyllabic statement too; luncheonette. But don’t try to get rid of used chopsticks when the first course is cleared. Your server will firmly put them back on your table. Oh, whatever!
Just slip Má Pêche’s tasty lemongrass caramel pork ribs off the bone. Photo: Steven Richter
I’d sip a properly tangy Seven Spice Sour, share an order of soft falling-off-the-bone lemongrass caramel pork ribs, the fragrant beef tartare, and hope to find the Bun du Riz on the daily changing menu. “It’s pasta like garganelli,” our very well-informed waiter suggests, and that’s what these rolled noodles look like, not merely al dente but chewy, between noodle and leather. You might think too chewy – maybe they are. But both the Road Food Warrior and I are loving them in a toss of spicy pork and some sharp greenery, sawleaf herb, common in Asian cooking, also known as Wild Coriander or Fitweed.
Crusty slices of blood sausage with corn at Má Pêche. Photo: Steven Richter
Ho’s pork sausage rolls are plump and luscious with crunch from a stick of pastry to hold them for dunking in a strong hoisin peanut sauce (too strong and sticky sweet for me). I can’t stop eating the chou-fleur chien – fried cauliflower laced with curry and mint - that tastes wildly salty from its fish sauce. Scallops cooked in brown butter with pea shoots, a marvelous rubble of bok choy with guanciale and lemon, and discs of crusty blood sausage with corn and chanterelles are all better bets than overcooked trout with long beans and chili jam - though I can’t get enough of those beans. None of the dedicated gourmands at our table ever heard of a Juliet steak. Could be no one but Chang would serve it. It’s half fat and a real chewing challenge quickly abandoned by all four of us, though fat rice frites are wonderful.
Both bass in a coconut bath and scallops in brown butter are too cooked for me. Photo: Steven Richter
The servers in blue jeans and shop aprons, properly drilled to answer any query, are cool enough to treat us as if we actually belong. When I ask for a drink that is not too sweet, our designated young woman delivers a thoughtful dissertation on the cocktail list – suggesting that the lemon in an Apple Brandy side car tempers the sweetness of Grand Marnier. And she’s right. It’s definitely pungent enough for me. And just $10, in step with a menu that lets you do dinner for $50 a person or less – small dishes $9 to $16, entrees $18 to $29 ($62 for a pork chop to share).
David Chang decides midtown needs his first ever oyster bar. Photo: Steven Richter
In his Times review Sam Sifton was mean enough to note that this is the first Chang restaurant truly suitable for dining “with the olds.” That’s us, alas, but I definitely feel like an accidental tourist here. Normally I don’t go where they don’t take reservations. (Confession: I once stood in line 20 minutes waiting for Momofuko Noodle Bar to open for lunch.) We’ve only scored this table because the joint is deserted on the Fourth of July weekend and again, a week later, on a sweltering hot Saturday. Though it did fill up late with people you would never be jealous of.
Hanoi memories: We’re four so Co Ba adds an extra spring roll for $2. Photo: Steven Richter
That’s why I’ll be taking my craving for rice noodles and fish sauce to smartly decked out Co Ba, with its wall of conical peasant hats, charming old photographs, and handsome lanterns dancing in the breeze of the air conditioner. I like the tumble of lettuce and herbs – mint, basil, cilantro – that comes with shrimp-pork-and-vegetable spring rolls, and the tamarind lemongrass dip for fried chili-pepper calamari from small plates at $5 to $7, including luscious grilled lemongrass baby back ribs. I wish he’d do a strong Nuoc Mam-scented sauce for the table. Noodle dishes and chicken, salmon or pork belly in clay pots are just $12 to $16. Even Co Ba’s most ambitious beef three ways is just $18.
It narrows toward the rear but Co Ba has style to spare. Photo: Steven Richter
Two years ago Duong closed Tet, sold O Mai and took off to explore the homeland he’d left to settle in Michigan when he was 13. Haunting the alley food stalls in Saigon and Hanoi, he was intrigued by how the women cooks used whatever was fresh in the market, classically done but with a twist all their own. That’s what he wants to do here with Saigon-born Jenny Lo at the stove and the Greenmarket so close.
Co Ba offers six differemt Banh Mi including Hanoi-style fish. Photo: Steven Richter
He takes note of the banh mi epidemic while he was away and adds six sandwiches to the menu. Our Hanoi-style fried fish on a toasted baguette, much ado about dill, with onion, mayo, jalapeño, and house pickles, brings back our first night in Hanoi at the smoke-filled legendary Cha Ca Restaurant eating that fish from a brazier. (Although here it’s missing the turmeric.)
Má Pêche won’t even give you a peach for dessert. There are cheeses in case you want to order a bottle of wine and linger. Or you can grab a Compost Cookie (pretzels, potato chips, butterscotch and chocolate chips, coffee grounds) or soft-serve ice cream to go from an outlet of Chang’s Milk Bar upstairs. (If you love a raw dough taste, try blueberry cream.)
Of course there’s dessert at Bo Ca: banana cupcakes, vanilla ice cream. Photo: Steven Richter
As I said before, Co Ba wants to be loved. There’s a tiny banana cupcake for each of you with Tahitian vanilla ice cream and pineapple sauce or pineapple sorbet in coconut tapioca sauce. And the house makes its own sweet watermelon rind salad to go with watermelon sorbet.
On a panel called, “The Masters: How I Became Me,” at the 2008 Food & Wine Festival in Aspen, Chang’s rap said it all, or did it?: “The most dangerous man is the one with nothing left to lose.” Maybe it was meatier in context.
Click here to read about my misadventures at Ko
Co Ba 110 Ninth Avenue between 18th and 19th Streets. 212 414 2700 Monday to Friday lunch 11:30 am to 2:30 pm. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 pm. Friday and Saturday till 11 pm. Brunch coming soon.
Má Pêche in the Chambers Hotel. 15 West 56th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. 212 757 5878. Breakfast in the Balcony Bar 7 to 11 am. Lunch 11:30 am to 2:30 pm,. except Sunday. Dinner every day 5 to 11 pm. Bar every day 11:30 till midnight with menu when dining room is closed. Online Reservations are accepted only for $25 two course lunch prix fix, pre-theater dinner and $85 seven course beef tasting.