Entries in BarBao (3)


The Payoff: BarBao and The West Branch

Today, Frank Bruni delivers identical one-star verdicts on BarBao and The West Branch:

Both the West Branch, a mostly Mediterranean brasserie, and BarBao, which interprets Vietnamese cuisine, deserve to make it. While their kitchens aren’t consistent enough or their menus quite original enough to brand them destination restaurants, they have real talent in their DNA and bring serious food to a patch of Manhattan that, for all its recent strides, could still use more of it.

This was one of Bruni’s better reviews. The text was consistent with the rating, and the rating was consistent with the general buzz about these places, and in the case of BarBao, with my own observations. And he resisted the temptation to give two stars to The West Branch merely because it is inexpensive.

Bruni liked BarBao a tad better than The West Branch. Yet, he thinks we may be heading into a burgers-‘n’-fries era, which could work to the latter restaurant’s favor. He found The West Branch consistently full, but BarBao always had empty tables (as it did when we visited). However, it could be less about the recession, and more about the fact that Tom Valenti is already well known in the neighborhood, thanks to Ouest, his other restaurant nearby.

We went home quite unsure about our hypothetical wager with Eater.com, given that either one of these places could have earned two stars. But our sense was that if either place had struck Bruni as a destination restaurant (which is essentially what two stars means), he would have granted it the courtesy of its own review.

As we correctly predicted one star for both restaurants, we win $5 on our hypothetical one-dollar bets. Eater was correct for BarBao (winning $2), but not The West Branch (losing $1), for a net of $1.

  Eater   NYJ
Bankroll $105.50   $124.67
Gain/Loss +1.00   +5.00
Total $106.50   $129.67
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 48–23   51–20

Rolling the Dice: Bar Bao and The West Branch

Every week, we take our turn with Lady Luck on the BruniBetting odds as posted by Eater. Just for kicks, we track Eater’s bet too, and see who is better at guessing what the unpredictable Bruni will do. We track our sins with an imaginary $1 bet every week.

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni has a two-fer, with Michael Bao Huynh’s BarBao and Tom Valenti’s The West Branch going under the microscope. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars:
One Star: 2-1 √√
Two Stars:
Three Stars: 35-1
Four Stars: 35,000-1

West Branch
Zero Stars:
One Star: 3-1
Two Stars: 2-1 √√
Three Stars: 5-1
Four Stars: 20,000-1

The Skinny: Bruni’s double reviews usually have a theme. Here, it is geography: both places are on Bruni’s beloved Upper West Side, where a deuce is always in play. You wonder, though, why a new two-star restaurant would be relegated to sharing a review, when trivial one-star places have so often been given reviews to themselves.

Frank Bruni has reviewed Michael Bao Huynh twice, awarding one star at Bao 111 and two at Mai House. When we visited, we found BarBao a touch less exciting—less polished—than Mai House.

We haven’t made it to The West Branch yet, but reviews have generally been positive. It’s a less ambitious version of Valenti’s other restaurant, Ouest, but as Eater notes, Bruni could give bonus points for serving pretty good grub at recession-friendly prices.

The Bet: We are betting that Frank Bruni will award one star apiece to BarBao and The West Branch.



[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