Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Ba Bar - Fancy Vietnamese Street Food

Ba Bar's bright windows
Nick insisted that I wrtite this blog. "You're Vietnamese, you should write it. You have stronger opinions about the food, " he said. So here is my caveat: because I am Vietnamese and because I have eaten the most delicious of Vietnamese cuisine (which includes my parent's food, my grandmother's cooking as well as the best selections from the O.C. - heyyo Bolsa-, noshes from the Bay Area and dishes from Vietnam), you should either take my opinion with a grain of salt or absolutely take it as the word from a walking Vietnamese food bible.

Ok, glad we got that out of the way.

Ba Bar is cute industrial-chic restaurant in the revived area by Seattle U's no-man's land between proper Cap Hill and First Hill. It's also a block or two away from Nick's place so he had been tracking it for weeks before its opening, eagerly awaiting a place that was touting its refined approach to street food with classically well-made cocktails. We went during its opening week with our good pals C&H to see if it could measure up to its assertions.  
The service can be sketchy at times, depending on who serves you and how busy it is but at least the space is lovely to look at with an open kitchen at the front. I like the large, paned windows that allow a lot of light in without making the restaurant seem too open.

Nom Nom Time

At first glance, the menu seemed a bit steep and had a wide variety of Vietnamese dishes, unless you are a vegetarian. After coming to Ba Bar a few more times, they have corrected this issue by lowering the price of many of their dishes as well as adding some no-meat options. The menu is a refined take on some classic Vietnamese dishes rathered than street food but isn't meant to be super-fancy either. There is a little bit of everything to get a general taste of Vietnam which has a long and varied culinary history.  Menu here: http://www.babarseattle.com/BaBar-Food.pdf 

We started with the Hue Dumpling, which is a mung bean dumpling wrapped in a sticky, glutenous rice wrapper. It was average; the dumpling wrapper was a little too thick and sticky for my taste but the dish was presented beautifully.

Banh bot loc chay
Bun cha ca
I ordered one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes: bun cha ca or a seared Idaho catfish colored with tumeric, served over cold rice noodles. It was the only pescatarian option at the time but I was excited to enjoy something classically northern with high quality pacific northwest product. The first proper meal Nick and I had in Vietnam was this dish at Cha Ca La Vong in Hanoi, probably the most famous place for this particular dish (which is the only dish they serve there). When I finally got to tear into the dish, I was a little disappointed. The best thing about this dish is that the tumeric colors the fish but that the fish is infused with the taste of fresh dill. There was no dill in their version (which is a travesty) so the dish fell flat and lacked any depth of flavor. 
Nick had the claypot chicken which is not on the menu anymore. It's a southern dish and cooking chicken over a long time in the claypot should allow the juices and sauces to caramelize. However, Nick shrugged it off since it was dry instead of moist and sweet.

Claypot rice

Chris' pork belly and rice was the clear winner of the night with a good amount of spice and crisp. Hema duck soup (mi vit tiem) also got some raves although Hema noted that the duck leg was a little difficult to manage to eat in the soup.
Pork belly
Mi vit tiem - duck soup

Sip Sip Time

The drinks are something else entirely. Ba Bar had a bit of controversy with their original captain bartender who lied about his bartending credentials and liquored up on the restaurant's booze (read up on the drama here) but I enjoyed every drink we ordered including the pisco sours.
Cocktail time!
Nom Nom Redux

We've gone back several times since. I desperately wanted to give this place a chance because it's clear that there is a lot of love and passion that goes into this place, even if it's not great. Yet.

It has improved. As I mentioned, the menu is a bit more manageable in terms of selection and value. I am willing to pay more for delicious refined dishes as long as the food meets that bar; I just found Ba Bar's original pricing to be way off for their items originally. Their vegetarian vermicelli bowl is decently tasty and even the nuoc cham is really vegetarian, which most Vietnamese establishments do not regard.  Nick has been happy with the chicken over broken rice and considers the pho decent although unsure if it's supposed to be northern or southern-style pho.

One thing I have found disheartening is that every time we've gone to Ba Bar, the server informs us that something (or mostly many things) are no longer available. Once, we went early on a Tuesday night and they were invariably out of half of the menu items. While I understand that sometimes popular items are eaten up quickly, they need to get on top of their restaurant management in terms of inventory and product. If this proves difficult, they should have a daily or weekly menu that changes with the availability of items. Staples like pho should not run out. Period.
I will continue to go since it's so close to Nick's place and I can't wait to enjoy its late night menu. However, I think the next time I am craving Vietnamese, I will take him down the hill to go to Tamarind Tree. While maybe not as chic and hip as Ba Bar, the food is better and uncompromising.

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