"It's so spicy and bright I could eat it for breakfast, upset stomach be damned."
About a month ago when I visited OBAO for a press preview, the paint was barely dry on the East Midtown restaurant. Much of Chef Michael "Bao" Huynh's menu, wasn't available at the time so I made a mental note to return—and did so this week.
At top is the shrimp salad ($9). Those chunks perched atop the mountain of shaved fennel and shrimp look like lardons, but they're actually little nuggets of candied tamarind. The ribbons of fennel have been pickled to such a degree that the anise flavor has vanished, leaving behind a cool crunchy texture akin to green papaya. Fresh mint rounds out this refreshing starter, which tastes like a cross between gỏi tôm, or Vietnamese shrimp salad, and som tam, Thai papaya salad. (It would be even better if it delivered on the menu's promise of jalapeño dressing.) An appetizer of lamb satay wrapped in betel leaf ($9) with spicy peanut coconut sauce mimics the morphology of Vietnamese spring rolls, with tender lamb standing in for ground pork.
After the jump, Huynh's take on an oft-maligned Thai dish.
I can count the number of times I've had pad thai on one hand; it's usually sickeningly sweet. OBAO's version ($11) overcomes this all too common defect while adding a few new twists.
Just to the left of the open kitchen is an immersion circulator filled with slowly simmering eggs. Give yourself five food geek points if you've figured out that the poached egg winds up crowning Huynh's pad thai. Mix the egg in, letting it coat the mixture of chewy fresh noodles, sprouts, peanuts, plump shrimp and tiny shards of salted red snapper. That last item is a nice touch, adding a jolt of pleasant funkiness in every other bite. The dish could use a bit more heat, but that's easily remedied by adding some homemade spicy satay sauce. The dark red paste combines dried shrimp powder, lemongrass, fish sauce, garlic, dried chilies and sambal. It's so spicy and bright I could eat it for breakfast, upset stomach be damned.
One dish that I could easily stomach for breakfast and all day is the Lao yellow rice ($10). Shot through with pieces of duck confit, egg, garlic and golden chives, this stuff is utterly addictive.
Everything I tried at OBAO was good, but the flavors could be dialed up a bit—which is interesting because I've never felt that way about the sandwiches at Baoguette. Turn it up, Michael. Midtown can take it.
222 East 53rd Street, New York NY 10022 (map)