Note: First Looks give previews of new dishes, drinks, and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots and interviews with restaurants, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.
Just down the street from his southern restaurant Seersucker and laidback coffee shop Smith Canteen, you'll find chef Rob Newton topping a bowl of pho with cilantro sprigs or making Vietnamese coffee popsicles at his new spot, Nightingale 9. For years Newton has been obsessed with southeast Asian flavors, but it was last year that he spent a month traveling through Vietnam, meeting with chefs and farmers from Hanoi all the way down south to Phu Quoc Island, a.k.a. the island where "the world's best fish sauce" is made.
Bottles of imported Red Boat fish sauce can be found on each of Nightingale 9's communal tables with bench seating, alongside other necessary condiments for this type of food: chili oil, nuoc cham (the sweet and fishy dipping sauce that's pervasive in Vietnam), and bourbon barrel-aged soy sauce from Kentucky. Ah, yes—Newton did grow up in Arkansas, so expect to find some southern flavors creeping into these otherwise Vietnamese-minded dishes—like the cracklins on the pork shoulder pho or the country ham with mustard greens fried rice.
The menu is divided into salads, many of which involve mint and other fresh herbs; pho-style rice noodle soups, aromatic with lemongrass and ginger; vermicelli bowls, including Cha Ca Catfish, a special catfish dish from Hanoi with heaps of dill; and jasmine rice plates, including that Southern-twisted fried rice cooked in lard. The restaurant faces the Carroll Gardens Greenmarket on Sundays, where Newton can be found shopping for produce and talking to farmers about growing special ingredients for his Vietnamese cooking.
"I'll never forget the best banh mi of my life in Hoi An," Newton recounts. But there's no banh mi on the Nightingale 9 menu, at least not yet. Newton wanted to introduce people to some less obvious Vietnamese dishes, like the Cha Ca Catfish or Bun Bo Hue, a noodle soup from the imperial city of Hue with thin slices of beef. Once Nightingale 9 opens for lunch though (still TBD), banh mi will join the roster.
For drinks, there's wine and beer on tap and some fresh juices including sugarcane-lime and tamarind. Counter Culture coffee is made in the Vietnamese style with sweetened condensed milk, which you can also order in popsicle form for dessert. Since dessert is rarely the focus of a Vietnamese meal, he's sticking to popsicles. "Who doesn't love ending a meal with a popsicle?"