Cassia in Santa Monica

“Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” is probably what Cassia, the gorgeous and buzzy restaurant in Santa Monica, would say to its haters. When you look this good in an elegant industrial loft setting, turning out glamorous and exotic Southeast Asian creations, people will try to find fault with you. “It’s so expensive” or “it’s interesting but not as good as the authentic stuff” will be some commonly heard feedback. But pay them no mind.Read More

Hanoi House in East Village

what’s on the menu at hanoi house?

The trend of new wave Vietnamese food continues with the opening of Hanoi House, a Vietnamese restaurant in the East Village run by two alums of the Stephen Starr restaurant empire (Buddakan and Upland) and chef John Nguyen. As you might expect, a meal at Hanoi House will be a slightly more elevated experience compared to one at the more traditional Vietnamese places. It certainly has a stylish “Indochine” look and feel about it, in which old school dark wood and palm fronds coexist with whitewash brick and other modern design elements. The space is already generating buzz and tables were hard to come by late on a Wednesday night. Luckily there were some seats at the bar, although even those went quickly.Read More

Vietnamese at Soothsayer

Our goal Friday night was to walk into Babu Ji and put our names down for a table, thinking we would probably wait an hour for it. Turns out the wait was more like 2 hours. Time for a back up plan.

It was a bit of a challenge trying to find other options all the way over on Ave B. There are a ton of scrappy little bars and restaurants in the area, but we wanted a restaurant that wasn’t so Alphabet City-ish. Something like a Hearth, which also had a 2 hour wait, or a Flinders Lane, which miraculously did have availability. We wanted to try something new, so when a waiter at Babu Ji tipped us off to a new Vietnamese restaurant called Soothsayer that had just opened on Ave A, we followed his lead.

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wine on tap

We were relieved to find a pretty space with a decent atmosphere that had plenty of seats available. I was a little thrown off by the fact that Soothsayer looked more like a stylish neighborhood wine bar than a traditional Vietnamese restaurant. Should I order something more fusion or something more traditional? There were options for both on the menu. I figured I should trust the soothsayer’s vision of a future where a banh mi “burger” and taro “tots” can comfortably coexist with traditional lemongrass grilled beef.

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the taro “tots” with vietnamese aioli, pork floss and basil
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the bánh mì “burger”

For the most part, I liked what I was seeing in the Soothsayer’s crystal ball. The little nuggets of starchy, fatty carbs that were the taro tots was the most exciting discovery, so much so that we ordered another. I was hoping for more from the bahn mi burger, but it didn’t taste that much different from a regular banh mi sandwich.  Even though it wasn’t a revelation, it was perfectly solid, and I couldn’t complain about the juicy patty with the sweet relish on top.

chicken wings with five spice, tempura and ginger
chicken wings with five spice, tempura and ginger
duck sausage fried rice
duck sausage fried rice

The chicken wings, on the other hand, probably could have used a little editing. They were clumsily drowning in too much batter, rendering the chicken part of the wing irrelevant. I also didn’t love the fried rice, which utilized Western ingredients like duck sausage and apple in lieu of lap cheong or basic chicken. It was too salty and overseasoned, with the flavors of the sausage and the smoked chicken muddying together and weighing down the rice, which should be lightly salted with a sprinkle or two of MSG.

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grilled beef with lemongrass, rice vermicelli and herbs
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morning glory greens with fermented bean curd, garlic and chili

The fusion dishes are the way to go, as the more authentic offerings can’t quite capture the hearty, homey flavors that you’d get at a traditional place. I wanted the grilled beef to punch me with its fish sauce and lemongrass flavors, but it was more like a light jab. The stir-fried morning glory also felt a little under-dressed, seemingly made by the hands of a cautious Vietnamese grandchild than by those of an experienced Vietnamese grandmother. The soothsayer’s culinary future wasn’t totally perfect, but I’m for the most part sold on it.


Soothsayer
171 Avenue A (between 10th and 11th St)
New York, NY 10009
(212) 475-3171

 

 

Mission Cantina’s Vietnamese Breakfast

They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but why is it also the most boring? Like can you really get all that excited by different variations of eggs and toast? Which is why I appreciate the Vietnamese breakfast offering at Mission Cantina, Danny Bowien’s Mexican restaurant in the LES. I’ve been pretty hard on Bowien and his seemingly inauthentic, experimental fusion cooking, but I have nothing but love for the Vietnamese menu.

a very strong cup of vietnamese coffee
a very strong cup of vietnamese coffee
complimentary shrimp chips and fried egg with maggi sauce
complimentary shrimp chips and fried egg with maggi sauce

Bowien’s cooking normally emphasizes bold flavors, but the Vietnamese breakfast shows a little more restraint at times. The chicken pho, for instance, featured a broth that was very clean and light, with some hints of lime and cilantro. It’s different from the more robust, more infused beef-based broths that you might get at a traditional Vietnamese restaurant, but I personally liked this understated version, and I thought it was appropriate for featuring a leaner type of protein. They also use wider rice noodles in their Hanoi-style pho, which I found interesting only because I’ve never seen this type ever used before in the bowls of pho I’ve come across. I don’t think there’s any sort of flavor trade-off from using wide vs. narrow noodles, although I’ve noticed that you have to be a little more strategic about how many of these you grab, because even one single strand can take up too much room on your soup spoon.

chicken pho, hanoi style
chicken pho, hanoi style

For a true power breakfast, look no further than the duck porridge. This is a bowl of congee that immediately commands your attention from the first bite, more indicative of the punchy style that Bowien is known for. Sometimes porridge rice can be extremely bland, a blank slate that relies on the accompanying seasonings to dress it up, but the version here comes fully loaded with flavor, ensuring a nice and salty, savory base. The key here is to swirl everything around so that you get a little bit of the egg yolk and the heavenly bits of duck meat all in the same bite. It also comes with a side of fried shrimp toast, a golden, crispy slab of bread covered in this insanely delicious briney and salty spread that had me take a moment to acknowledge how good this was, and another when I dipped it into the porridge. If a bowl could ever cure all ails, this one definitely would.

duck porridge with ginger sauce, salty peanuts and shrimp toast
duck porridge with ginger sauce, salty peanuts and shrimp toast
broken rice with lemongrass sausage, fried eggs and pickle
broken rice with lemongrass sausage, fried eggs and pickle

It’s interesting how the vibe of Mission Cantina itself changes during morning service versus dinner. It has a very relaxed, off-duty energy about it, like as if the restaurant itself was hungover from last night’s fiesta and needed to recover with some hearty Asian food. You still have that same 90s R&B playing in the background, but on a much lower volume so that those bump and grind tracks become more like lullabies. I think this is why the Vietnamese concept succeeds where the Mexican doesn’t, because the emphasis is really just on making food that’s tasty and satisfying, as opposed to layering on bells and whistles that fall short. The limited and focused menu gives the kitchen the ability to execute things very well. So forget the late night tacos, sleep in and wake up early to a fantastic Vietnamese breakfast. 


Mission Cantina
172 Orchard St (between Stanton and E. Houston St)
New York, NY 10002
(212) 254-2233
Breakfast served from 9-11 am. Walk-ins only, getting a table not a problem.