Entries in Michael Bao Huynh (6)


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


Who is in the Kitchen at Mai House?


Note: Click here for a more recent update.

There are strange doings at Mai House. In January, founding chef Michael Bao Huynh was out. Or was he? Apparently, it was just a misunderstanding: he had merely gone AWOL for five weeks.

In March, Top Chef contestant Spike Mendelsohn launched a tasting menu at Mai House, based on the food he’d prepared on the TV show.

Yesterday, the mystery of Huynh’s whereabouts was apparently resolved: Gael Green reported that Huynh had taken over at Rain, on the Upper West Side. And today, Eater reported that Mendelsohn was fired at Mai House. Eater reported, at first, that another Top Chefer, Lisa Hernandes, was replacing Mendelsohn, but later in the day this was retracted.

If this were any other restaurant, we’d assume an Eater Deathwatch was in order. But because it’s a Drew Nieporent restaurant, we figure it’ll all get sorted out. We love Mai House, and want it to live long and prosper.

But who is in the kitchen?


Mai House


Note: Mai House is closed. There was never an official announcement from Myriad Restaurant Group, but as of June 2009 the space had been shuttered for months, and it wasn’t even open for the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival. If you’re not open for that, then you’re not open. Mai House never truly caught on, and it did not survive the departure of the original chef with the short attention span, Michael Bao Huynh, who went on to cook many of the same dishes at BarBao on the Upper West Side, now also closed.


To paraphrase the song, “Mai House is a very, very, very fine house.” But business appears to be slow, based on a Tuesday night dinner that found the restaurant sparsely attended.

That’s too bad, because I think chef Michael Bao Huynh’s Vietnamese-inspired menu is terrific. I rated Mai House at two stars in November, a verdict I’m standing by today. In January, Frank Bruni of the Times awarded two stars as well, but a less impressed Adam Platt in New York awarded only one.

As this visit was a mix of business and pleasure, I didn’t snap any photos. We ordered a lot of food, of which I can only recite the highlights. We started with the Hot Spring Rolls ($11), the Wild Boar Sausage ($11), and the Frog’s Leg Lollipops ($12). The sausage has gone through a number of re-designs. This time, it was served in meatball-sized pieces skewered with toothpicks. The frog’s leg lollipops, each about the size of a large gum ball, came with an addictive hot sauce.

The highlight was the Sweet & Sour Spicy Whole Red Snapper ($28). The body of the fish was fried crisp into the shape of a cylinder, so that it could be used as a serving vessel. This was so cleverly done that I didn’t realize at first that I was looking at a dead fish. The meat of the fish itself, apparently removed before this operation, was deposited inside. Huynh balanced the spices to perfection, so that the sweet, sour, and spicy all had their turn. The fish itself was quite tender.

It would be easy to be cynical about yet another big-box Asian restaurant, but at Mai House the décor doesn’t overpower the food. Service was attentive and competent.

Mai House (186 Franklin Street between Greenwich & Hudson Streets, TriBeCa)

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


Mai House

Drew Nieporent isn’t accustomed to doing things quietly. With Nobu, TriBeCa Grill, and Montrachet (among others) in his restaurant empire, he knows how to make a splash. So it is surprising that when the Times published its fall restaurant preview, there was no mention of a new Vietnamese restaurant from Nieporent’s Myriad Restaurant Group. Was Nieporent trying to downplay expectations? If so, he needn’t have worried. Mai House, which opened just nine days ago, is a hit.

Nieporent likes to keep a close eye on his restaurants. All but one of his seven New York properties are in TriBeCa, within a five-minute radius of one another; indeed, three of them, including Mai House, are on the same block as his corporate office on Franklin Street. The night before Mai House opened, I walked in to take a look. There was Drew, lecturing the serving staff: “You’re here to serve the customer, not the kitchen.” It may not be the most startling insight, but I’ve been to a few restaurants where the staff needed that lecture. Last night, Drew was in and out of the restaurant several times, chatting up the staff and making subtle adjustments.

I began with a couple of the specialty cocktails, which were only $10 apiece, in a town where they could easily be $15. Either of the Tiger Tail (Absolut Peppar, Triple Sec, Passion Fruit Puree, Thai Chile) or the Flyboy (Ginza no suzume souj, Marasca, Rhum Orange, Lime Juice) could easily become addictive.

For the appetizer, I ordered the Wild Boar Sausage ($11) with green papaya salad. The sausage is served warm, and is just mildly spicy. The kitchen slices it into small pieces, so that you can pick it up with your chopsticks. It comes mixed with the salad, which is crisp and refreshing. Braised Berkshire Pork Belly ($23), on a bed of red cabbage and drizzled with coconut juice, should be everyone’s guilty pleasure. It looks gorgeous and tastes even better. After getting on the scale this morning, I concluded I should have resisisted Sticky Rice with Chinese Sausage ($4), but I’m glad I didn’t.

Vietnamese Coffee ($4) was a dud. A mix of espresso-like coffee and condensed milk, it tasted sour and dull.

The chef, Michael Bao Huynh, made his name at Bao 111 in the East Village. He must be especially fond of the wild boar sausage, as he came over to my table after dinner to inquire whether I had liked it. I replied that I did, adding that the braised pork belly was terrific too. He replied in self-deprecating fashion, “That must be because you like pork.”

The menu is still undergoing some refinement, as one would expect for a new restaurant. A pre-opening menu (PDF) had the wild boar sausage as an entrée, but now it is available only as an appetizer. While it immediately leaped out at me as the first thing to try (and I was not disappointed), evidently not enough diners were willing to take that leap of faith for a main course. I’m glad Huynh hasn’t given up on it.

The space is gorgeous (see the Eater preview), although fairly informal. There are no tablecloths, though I was happy to see lacquer chopsticks, as opposed to the disposable wooden ones they’re using at Nobu these days. The server was attentive, and almost a bit over-eager. He apparently hadn’t been briefed on the evolving menu, as when I asked for a recommendation, he suggested an item that is no longer on offer.

Mai House hasn’t caught on yet. It was only just barely warming up during the 6:00 p.m. hour last night (hardly a barometer on a Friday night, I must admit). If I am right about the cuisine, it won’t be a secret for long. If all Vietnamese cooking is this good, I’m ready to hitch the next flight to Hanoi.

Mai House (186 Franklin Street between Greenwich & Hudson Streets, TriBeCa)

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