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[Savory Cities]

Note: BarBao closed in March 2010, the latest restaurant the love-’em-and leave-’em chef has abandoned. It will become a second branch of Marc Murphy’s Ditch Plains.


BarBao is the latest production of Vietnamese chef Michael Bao Huynh. He has made the rounds, to put it charitably, but he is a partner here, so perhaps he’ll finally stay put. I loved his cooking at Mai House, and there is certainly no doubt about his talent.

The space that was formerly Rain has been gutted and beautifully renovated. There’s a large bar, a spacious dining room, yet another bar, and a quiet space in the back with seating so comfortable that you’ll want to take it home with you.

The major critics haven’t made it here yet, but Cuozzo in the Post, DiGregorio in the Village Voice, and Gael Greene at Insatiable all liked it. Andrea Strong had a muted reaction by her standards, though she found the décor—get this!—sexy. I’ll alert the media.

Instead of appetizers and entrées, the menu offers “Small Plates” ($8–14) and “Big Plates” ($16–27), all served family style. The plates of whatever size are designed for sharing, which is the way to go. The cuisine, though nominally Vietnamese, is very liberally interpreted.

Most reviewers have mentioned the Daikon Duck Hash ($14; above left). The concept is beguiling: what’s not to love about duck fat and a fried egg? But we found the duck fat cloying, and the few slices of real duck meat seemed too skimpy.

An Octopus special ($14; above right) was the star of the evening.

Mashima Sirloin ($24; above left) got a mixed reaction. I considered it a success, but my girlfriend found the meat a bit too tough. The accompanying salad, to our surprise, was served cold (by design).

Lemongrass Guinea Hen ($17; above right), another special, was terrific. It had enough red pepper for a three-alarm fire, but we were also impressed by the tenderness of the meat.

Had the server told us that the Guinea Hen came with rice, we probably wouldn’t have ordered a side of Duck Fried Rice ($9; below left). Still, it was very good fried rice, and had more duck in it than the Daikon Duck Hash we had earlier.

The wine list isn’t lengthy, but we were pleased with a 2000 Valdrinal Tempranillo, which at $44 was one of the better wine deals we’ve seen this year.

Like most restaurants these days, BarBao needs to work hard for its customers’ affections. It was about half full on a Friday night, which probably covered the rent, but isn’t good enough to stay in business. Service was attentive, if perhaps a bit ingratiating, and there must have been three or four manager types who kept dropping by, along with the chef himself, to make sure we were enjoying ourselves—which we were.

The two best items we had were specials, which tells me that chef Huynh is still experimenting, and that return visits will be rewarded with new things to try. The food wasn’t perfect, but much of it was very good, and the bill for two was a very reasonable $120 before tax and tip.

Bar Bao (100 W. 82nd Street at Columbus Avenue, Upper West Side)

Food: *½
Service: *½
Ambiance: *½
Overall: *½

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