24 Nov 2010

First Bite: Ba Bay

Photo by María Helena Carey. Hi, nice waiter!

When a new restaurant opens in your neighborhood– your beloved, cherished neighborhood which has had a bad reputation in the not-so-distant past, you wish it the best of luck.  You go early in the game and explore it, enthusiastically order off the menu, in the hopes that it will make it and stick around. And then sometimes you fall in love with the place, within the bounds of reason.  You feel it’s your duty to promote it.  You talk about it with your friends and hope that your Fancy friend –the one who has reservations for Komi and for the Inn at Little Washington within the month– and your Practical friend — the one who will not be persuaded to pay extra for things you can get cheaper elsewhere– will both find the place a good and worthy place.

If the place in question is the new Ba Bay restaurant taking up the space of the former Locanda, at 633 Pennsylvania Avenue, the odds are good that both Fancy and Practical will be pleased.

The new owners of the space have appointed the room in a cozy, foreign atmosphere that puts you in the mood of exotic spices and rice paddies and unexpected bounty from the earth.  The fixtures look like lovely baskets to hold things like a large, fragrant rambutan, a bough of spicy cilantro, or some coconuts.  The blond wood and minimalist feel help carry through your South Asian fantasy, and then you either sidle up to the bar or sit on the banquette and find yourself with a menu that is 1) a little expensive; 2) delightfully intriguing; and 3) surprisingly not very vegetarian-friendly (I know this because I brought along a vegetarian friend).

But you want to know about the food and whether you need to employ the sitter on Friday night.  I am here to tell you: yes.  I went on Sunday evening with everyone’s favorite fashion blogger, a good friend of mine, and an out-of-towner who was a lot of fun.  We kicked things off with a cocktail you simply must have: the Saigon Mule ($12).  A frothy, spicy concoction made with Ba Bay’s own ginger beer and vodka, it flows seamlessly with the décor and the smells wafting from the kitchen and puts you in an exotic paradise frame of mind.  (But careful: just like a real mule, it’s got quite a kick).  Now, for the dishes:

Among our party, it was agreed that none of us had ever had such amazingly flavorful Bok Choy.  When you think Bok Choy, incidentally, seldom do you think savory, crunchy, luscious and dripping with taste  (tip of the hat to Liz).  And yet, this was it: an appetizer that read like an entree, and one that I dare you to try and dislike.  The cabbage salad was a little heavy on the dressing, but it was very generous and absolutely delicious– and oh! that cilantro goodness!  Also high up in the marks was the surprisingly hearty broth with meatballs.  The broth was amazing and flavorful, like the best soup you can recall; the meatballs were dainty mouthfuls but so very delicious it was almost a crime there were only five (although I suspect that more would have looked gauche when plated).  Another winner among the offerings and with patrons in general?  The ribs!  They were fall-off-the-bone tender and the sauce was thick and delicious, and they were such a hit that the kitchen had to order more to keep up with demand, as they actually ran out!  My only lament would be that the portion, at $19, is rather small.  We demand more ribs!  The sausage with mung beans was excellent and again, surprisingly robust.
A dish that was not such a favorite?  The cellophane noodles with crab could have done with slightly less fish sauce.  A little fish sauce goes a long way… a loooooong way.  And a dish that must be tried soon and which I regret not trying (yet)?  The sugar cane shrimp with back fat; because everything is made better with that soupçon of bacon, right?  (Shoutout to our sweet, patient waiter– thank you for taking the time to explain it all to us!)

Photo by María Helena Carey, who is still thinking Bok Choy can't be that good.

Practical friend might have an issue shelling out $15 for Pho, for instance, which can be deliciously obtained for much cheaper at many bona fide good places in the area.  Practical may also balk at some of the portions, which seem ungenerous for the across-town prices.  However, Fancy friend will beg Practical to suck it up a little, because Ba Bay is really quite a tasty little gem.  This is what happens when you bring in grandma, a.k.a. Madame Seven, to approve: things are (mostly) delicious.  I can only imagine how things will be when the restaurant is out of the soft open period!

If you go, order a few dishes and enjoy them family-style– they encourage this and set the table with small plates you can pile as high as you desire.  But even though they have high chairs, I would leave the kiddos at home: these tastes are best enjoyed with diners who won’t show their disdain by hurling things onto the floor.  Trust me: you may weep if your toddler decides to upend the ribs: they are that good.

Ba Bay is located at 633 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE.  They don’t take reservations, but they have a very comfy bar.

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8 responses to “First Bite: Ba Bay”

  1. Caroline says:

    I had high hopes that this place would have vegetarian options. Guess I’ll have to keep going out to Springfield for my pho fix.

  2. Caroline says:

    Also, while I’d expect to pay a little more for the location and ambiance, $15 for pho is twice as much as what other places charge!

  3. Jake says:

    We took our toddler (2), who loved the food — but she is not a picky eater and was on her best behavior. The owner could not have been nicer about her being there and was so excited she liked the Vietnamese food as there is definitely no kids menu (nor should there be). We also went right at 530, which is probably best if you have a kid or kids.

    Later at night when the place is full of people — leave the kids at home and have a nice night out. This review is dead on — the food is fantastic. I tried those shrimp and they were excellent as well–especially when dipped in the fish sauce that’s on the side.

  4. Caroline– While I agree with you that it was a surprise that they had few vegetarian options, I dearly hope that the menu evolves according to the public’s demand.

    Jake– I’m glad you had a good experience with your toddler, and that you enjoyed the experience!

  5. 8thStreeter says:

    This is literally my tweet review from a couple of weeks ago:

    “Tried @babaydc tonight. The autumn rolls were great. Didn’t enjoy cellophane ndl crab dish; too salty from fish sauce & small for the price”

    Glad someone is with me on the crab noodle dish.

  6. So excited about BaBay opening on the same block as my new store. Very disappointed to hear about the lack of veggie options. I will try to investigate next week. I really hope they add some vegan choices. 🙂

  7. b says:

    Vietnamese cuisine adapts very well, and vegetarian cooking is not entirely foreign to “traditional” Vietnamese cooking, as there is a Buddhist tradition and even vegetarian options in traditional Vietnamese food enclaves like Eden Center in Falls Church or Westminster in Orange County, CA.

    I didn’t expect a vegetarian restaurant, but there is absolutely nothing on the menu for vegetarians, which limits not only my ability to eat here with my family but to bring guests. It’s also increasingly out of step with current dining trends.


  8. 8th Streeter: I am glad we both agree. I can only hope that some of the dishes benefit from the soft opening tweaking and let the flavor shine through more.

    Labyrinth: Welcome to the neighborhood to you too! It’s exciting what’s happening all over that block, isn’t it?

    B: I agree, and I hope that, as with other dishes, this major point is revisited and adjusted, or that the kitchen is willing to work with substitutions. Admittedly, my friend or I didn’t ask for any.

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