December 14, 2009 | BITE: My Journal

If This Is Tuesday: It Must Be Obao

Thai beef salad is a hill of pineapple, mint and torrid red chili bits. Photo: Steven Richter
Thai beef salad is a hill of pineapple, mint and torrid red chili bits. Photo: Steven Richter

        I admit I’m mesmerized by the audacity of Michael Huynh’s feverish empire building. Landlords are begging him to take their abandoned restaurant spaces, he confides, and he must leap now before the economy turns. But for me, it’s not just a fascination with his megalomania, it’s his food. I’ve loved his Vietnamese cooking, both the tweaked and the authentic, since I first tasted his haunting yam soup at Bao 111. I’ve followed his trail of broken hearts – the lovelorn restaurateurs he’s left behind – from Drew Nieporent of Mai House, to Bun/Soho before he fled to a partnership at BarBao, quickly cutting out to create Baoguette, the metastasizing Vietnamese sandwich shop concept for his wife, Thao Nguyen, with a sidestep to the West Village and the sensational little Pho Sure, followed by Bia Garden on the Lower East Side, Spot, the dessert shop on St. Mark’s Place with Bao Ong, and now Obao, first of his proposed noodle shop collection.

       Given Huynh’s fickle focus, I need to move fast. Even when he doesn’t sever all ties with a fledgling opus, I’ve watched astonishments of hot and sweet, smoky and peppery, crusty and melting quickly lose their edge when he’s distracted.

On the seventh day Krypton chef Michael Huynh rested. Photo: Steven Richter

        Barely over jet lag from two weeks in Paris, the two of us troop into the narrow little midtown storefront that houses Obao. We’re meeting our Vietnamese friend Truyen, a champion of Michael’s and a confidante of his wife. I’m not sure he’s expecting me but he’s there in the deserted front area with its open kitchen and as yet unlicensed bar. He grins and introduces us to his real estate agent with the proud air of a fighter who’s found a great promoter.

Radish (daikon) noodles stirfried with shrimp, egg and bean sprouts. Photo: Steven Richter

        He settles the three of us into a compact booth alongside long communal tables in the dark back room, also spottily occupied this Thursday evening. At lunch light probably pours through the skylight I can barely make out in the evening shadows. Strips of mirror set in the wall and light bulbs inside a picture frame feel slightly shabby in contrast to the charm of Pho Sure and the sophisticated complexity of collage and vintage furniture at BarBao, designs Huynh claims as his own. He’s his own builder and contractor too. “But maybe I need to hire someone,” he says, “It’s running slow and there’s so much to do.”  He describes his next dozen projects in Vietnamese and English.  “Maybe we will open Mikey’s Burgers this weekend with a party at 2 a.m.”

         “I’m exhausted just listening to you,” says Truyen. He takes that as a compliment and then disappears.

Mustard-honey glazed spare ribs come wrapped around sugar cane. Photo: Steven Richter

        And soon enough, platters arrive, but no serving spoons. I’m put off by grayish thins of beef. “Can it be rare?” I had asked. I’m quickly seduced by the powerful tangle of flavors and textures in the spicy beef salad: cucumber cool, pineapple sweet, two kinds of mint, roasted rice, pomelo, an essence of coconut, pickled carrot tang, peanut crunch and, watch out, little shocks of torrid red chili. Radish noodles are the same gummy little “morsels” I love as daikon cake in BarBao’s duck hash, equally as addictive as Pho Sure’s pan fried rice cake with duck sausage. Here the delicious little lumps are stir-fried with shrimp and shrimp paste, egg, chive, sweet Malaysian soy, coriander and bean sprouts.

Crusty caramelized  chicken gets a complex anchovy sauce and sticky rice. Photo: Steven Richter

        Huynh’s luscious spin on classic pad Thai is to weave in smoked tofu and dried red snapper instead of fish paste. Then, rather than stir fried egg, he sets a quivering poached orb on top to smoosh in, creating an unexpected silken stickiness. Palm sugar and tamarind add a faint sweetness.  Honey mustard-glazed spare ribs wrapped around sugar cane skewers are too sweet for me. And I can’t bring myself to finish a blowsy summer roll – with a skimpy half shrimp slice, some wilted herbs and much too much vermicelli, as dry as mattress stuffing. 

Our server delivers barbecued Thai chicken with a pungent anchovy sauce. Photo: Steven Richter

        What shall we have next? Bon Bo Hue soup with pig’s feet? Crispy pork belly with pickled green papaya? Fish with dill and turmeric, a favorite of ours from Hanoi? We study the menu and are debating when, out of the kitchen come Michael’s choices for us, marvelously crusty Bangkok chicken to douse in fragrant anchovy sauce, and barbecued pork chops Vietnamese style, cut thin and caramelized. A bowl of sticky rice with bits of chicken and sausage and two covedred dishes, one holding garlicky water spinach, the other, sautéed pea shoots are parked alongside. And though prices are somewhat higher than Pho Sure, they’re still modest: $7 to $12 for appetizers or soup, $10 to $16 for noodles or barbecue.

         Would you blame the man for striking while he’s hot? After Mikey’s at 135 Ludlow and the latest Baoguette, between the projects in Williamsburg and a rumored project in Georgia, the two star restaurant he dreams of and a Cuban-Asian collaboration with Alex Garcia, he’ll do his book. He assures us chef de cuisine Tod Wann, a veteran of Wolfgang Puck’s Obachin, Jean Georges’ Vong, and Tabla, will be fine on his own at Obao. I recall that he hired Sean Scotese, who’d worked with him in Vietnam, to keep Pho Sure and “everything I open as good as it can be.”  But Scotese (disappointed by unfulfilled promises, he tells me)  has quit Huynh enterprises, Michael reports. “To do his own thing.” He has found an investor and will open his own small Asian-style place on Clinton Street.

I can live without this deep fried banana and walnut concoction. Photo: Steven Richter

        What we crave now is just one bite of something sweet.  The house is just starting to add desserts, our server confides. Tonight’s effort is  battered fried banana stuffed with walnut paste next to a mound of weirdly candied walnuts. Very nasty.

These little rolls are not bad at all but don’t send me dead lettuce. Photo: Steven Richter 

        But that’s not what I remember.  What haunts me next day are those radish noodles and the fabulous beef salad. Saturday night we’ve cancelled a reservation elsewhere and are back with friends. No sign of Michael, still no liquor license. Alas, the Vietnamese chicken salad with cabbage slaw does not come close to the beef salad dazzle. Oddly grizzled spring rolls might be forgiven but not the two leaves of dead lettuce our server suggests we wrap them in.  She looks stunned as I instruct her to “bring fresh lettuce” so I can show our friends how to wrap the roll with a mint leaf and dip it into the sauce. There is no ladle or even a large spoon to dish up the spicy coconut broth of somewhat lackluster Singapore Laksa into four small bowls. The traumatized waitress brings a small Chinese soup spoon.

         But the Pad See Iew, Korean short ribs with wide noodles, mustard green and green mango kimchee, restores my faith. Perhaps the key is ordering well. Or maybe Michael himself was cooking for us that first visit. In any case, the spicy lemongrass Korean barbecue short rib is not as good as the chicken or the pork.

         Our server seems proud to announce a new dessert tonight. A curiously vulcanized panna cotta made with pandan, an Asian leaf flavoring (“like vanilla,” says Michael), condensed milk and palm sugar - Huynh’s recipe and the chef’s rendition. Not too sweet and strangely bouncy.  And the check is a remarkably gentle $47 for two of us with the tip.

         It’s Sunday. I just spoke to the Empire Builder. “Did you open any restaurants today?” I ask.

        "No,” he responds. “Not in the bad weather. Nobody will come.”

222 East 53rd Street between Second and Third Avenues. 212 308 5588. Monday through Saturday. Lunch 11 am to 5 pm. Dinner 5 to 11 pm.
Cafe Fiorello

Providing a continuous lifeline to homebound elderly New Yorkers