WHEN MONSOON OPENED on North Capitol Hill in 1999, it was the first upscale Vietnamese bistro Seattle had ever seen. The sleek-lined modern interior, the devotion to seasonal Northwest meat, fish, and produce, the killer wine list: Monsoon was a true destination Vietnamese restaurant, with food that spoke Vietnamese in a distinctly Northwest accent. A few years later Saigon-born sibling owners Sophie and Eric Banh opened their follow-up Baguette Box, where they applied similar principles to a mod little sandwich operation. They filled banh mi, Vietnamese baguette sandwiches, with briskly fused combos of things like braised pork shoulder and harissa, or tuna Niçoise and cornichons.
In creating restaurants where the animating principle was food that exploded with flavor—ethnic and traditional boundaries be damned—the Banhs’ message was clear: Vietnamese cuisine is so much more than traditional Vietnamese cuisine.
So when the Banhs opened Ba Bar on that globe-trotting stretch just south of Capitol Hill’s 12th Avenue—where French (Cafe Presse), Japanese (Boom Noodle), Italian (La Spiga), and more mix it up—it seemed likely more fusion would be the order of the day.
Nope. Ba Bar is Eric Banh’s love song to the street food he adored as a child in Saigon, and thus hews to a traditionalist standard that we haven’t yet seen from this pair.
“I’ve been telling Sophie for years, ‘When I open my casual place I’m putting on the menu all the stuff you don’t like!’” cracks her kid brother. It’s not that Sophie doesn’t like boiled cabbage wraps in tomato sauce or slippery mung bean dumplings, exactly; it’s more that she, culinary mastermind of two startlingly innovative enterprises, is less interested in the classics.
Frankly, neither may you be. Ba Bar cuts a strikingly youthful profile between the amply stocked bar at one end and the lofty people-watching windows at the other. Seattle U students and professors and assorted vibrant urban folk gather for coffee and pastries by morning, followed by lunches, cocktail happy hours, casual dinners, and late-night study breaks and nightcaps, which on weekends go all the way till 4am. The trademark Banh clean lines and decorative restraint adds to the sense of contemporaneity—so much so that a stolid boiled cabbage wrap, with its bitter leaves and authentically pasty pork filling, might not be quite the lighthearted cocktail nibble you expect. Or, if yours is a Western palate, that you even like.
If that’s the case, not to worry. The authenticity that curses you in that dish will bless you in another—richly. Rotisserie meats, bequeathed upon Saigon by the Chinese and a big part of its street culture, run to four or five a day here: maybe grilled chicken, charry prawns, Peking duck, and spicy pork belly. One can order one’s meat—very tender Draper Valley chicken, say—topping a cool tangle of vermicelli along with peanuts and caramelized shallots and cucumber and lettuce, with a dish of the chili-kissed fish sauce nuoc cham for enthusiasm. Or you could order a generous serving of unctuous pork belly over a bowl of broken rice in a dish that captures all the leafy buoyancy of Vietnamese food: the pickled vegetables, the fat mint sprigs, the ruffly leaf lettuce, the crunchy cucumbers, all against a thrumming backbeat of birds-eye chili and lemongrass.
This sort of verve is all over the menu at Ba Bar. Seared Idaho catfish, fragrant with turmeric and dill, arrived with frisky greenery and pickled vegetables, and a lettuce leaf for wrapping it all up. A small dish of smelt arrived lightly floured and fried, briny and crunchy over a mess of herbed cukes and cherry tomatoes. A bowl of pho was heady with basil and onions and mint and sprouts and fork-tender sheets of Painted Hills New York steak.
A stolid boiled cabbage wrap might not be quite the lighthearted cocktail nibble you expect.
I was nonetheless frustrated to see dishes arrive at other tables that I hadn’t seen on the menu. Turns out I had, but didn’t know it. Pate chaud, for instance—one of the beautiful bastard children of French colonialism and Vietnamese occupation—is a meat mixture, here Carlton Farms pork with caramelized onion and carrot baked inside a flaky pastry and served warm. A thousand eyes would read that to be a sort of pate and skip over it. Mine did. But this dish is not pate at all; it’s Ba Bar’s signature hit, as winning as a shattering savory pastry by morning as with a shot at last call.
These underembellished menus are a problem, in part because of Ba Bar’s insider Vietnamese identity—what sort of crab soup is “bun rieu,” and how does pork blood cake figure in?—and in part because of the Banhs continuing inability to nail service. Wherever menus need as much explication as Ba Bar’s do, servers should be all the more attentive and well versed. Ours, though friendly, were consistently diffident and uninformed. “I’m not sure who makes the pastries, but I’m pretty sure I gained 10 pounds yesterday,” smiled one of the more vacant ones.
Pastries are terrific, served in the foyer along with Caffé Vita in the morning. Desserts are sweet-sweet, in the manner of many Asian finishers, from a grainy chocolate cake to a coconut panna cotta (more gummy than creamy, again in the Asian style) topped with ripe pineapple and a sugary kind of sesame brittle. Even a chocolate chip cookie came on a plate drizzled with chocolate—which, say what you will, might hit just the spot at 3 in the morning.
That’s about the time the Saigon of Eric Banh’s youth was just getting going. “We didn’t have social media, we didn’t have computers,” he sighs. “We came to places like this.”
Updated October 18, 2011. Ba Bar is located in the Central District, not Capitol Hill as stated in the October 2011 issue.