Nightingale 9: Rob Newton Does Casual, Creative Vietnamese, to Mixed Results
345 Smith Street (b/n Carroll and Second), New York, NY 11231 (map); 347-689-4699; nightingale9.com
Service: Pleasant, professional
Setting: Clean bordering on empty. Low tables and backless stools don't encourage lingering.
Must-Haves: Hudson Valley Duck noodles, Crab and Fluke salad
Cost: Around $35 per person for food
Recommendation: Good for the neighborhood, with reservations. Prices are higher than a casual joint and greater aspirations fall short.
Nightingale 9, Rob Newton's new effort at Vietnamese cooking in Carroll Gardens, is a deceptive place. It appears—and it's been so called—a casual noodle shop, a spot for rice noodles and soup and grilled meat, its low-slung tables and backless stools a very Brooklyn version of Vietnam's streetside quick-service eateries.
But it's not hard to see that Newton has greater ambitions. Though his food veers towards traditional Vietnamese forms, there's something about his cooking that reminds me of Tien Ho's tenure at the then-Vietnamese-esque (and damn good) Ma Peche. It's thoughtful, precise, and pretty original.
Indeed, Nightingale 9 seems poised to bridge all sorts of gaps, such as the false one between traditional Asian cooking versus modern and the more real one between casual eating and studied cuisine.
The restaurant gets close. But while it's a place I'd appreciate having in the neighborhood, there's one gap it doesn't overcome. I don't think terms like "authentic" and "modern" have much weight in today's food landscape, but if a chef seeks to put their own spin on a cuisine, they owe it to that cuisine—and to us eaters—to make their version just as punchy and exciting as their source material. Nightingale 9 doesn't totally fail in this regard, but it doesn't fully succeed either.
The dinner menu comes in four sections: salads and small "street food" bites, vermicelli bowls (bun), soups (pho and friends), and rice-based sides. All are priced about the same—$8 to $15—and come in similar portions, which is to say small. Expect to order at least two per person for a full meal; gutbusting cheap eats this is not.
You may do best to concentrate on the protein-driven street food and noodles, where Newton's pedigreed meat and seafood shine—though perhaps not as much as their constant menu branding would suggest. Chilled Fluke and Crab ($13) on a puffy rice flour crisp is ridiculously clean and sweet beneath a cap of fluffy, lime-scented coconut. A bite hits you—lime, seafood, coconut—and then it bolts. I could eat it by the handful.
On the other end of the spectrum is Caramel Berkshire Pork, a mere five cubes of pork belly for $15 in fish sauce-spiked savory Vietnamese caramel. Those pork cubes are so rich, so irrepressibly porcine, that one or two might just do it for you. The price for the portion feels almost justified. Almost.
I also appreciate the stage time Newton gives to turmeric in his take on Cha Ca Catfish ($12), though I found the dill shortchanged and the catfish subtle against its seasonings. But my favorite of the night was a more generously-filled bowl of Hudson Valley Duck and chewy wheat noodles ($15). Where the rest of the menu is bright and clean, so slimmed down in its own elegance that dishes almost disappear, this shows outstanding brawn. If you go to Nightingale 9 expecting dressed-up takes on real street food, this dish, with its juicy duck and gleefully fatty brown sauce, delivers.
Those duck noodles stick with me. And I wish all the others did. But our table shrugged off a bowl of Green Papaya Salad ($12) overwhelmed by its nuggets of sweet dried beef, and shredded Raw Collards ($8) with coconut and fried shallots was dull and uninteresting.
Nightingale 9's Hudson Valley Beef Pho ($12) may be served purposefully subtle so you can dress it with herbs and the prized Red Boat Fish Sauce that adorns every table, but even when seasoned to taste it lacks character. The broth is thin, the beef meek—not bad at all by New York's sadly low pho standards, but not slurpworthy either. A bowl of Grilled Berkshire Pork (bun cha; $12) also falls flat, relying on those tableside condiments more than herbs and pork to deliver its flavor.
Dessert is as minimalist as the bare white walls: popsicles, $5 each, frustrating to share and lightly sweetened, in flavors like Vietnamese coffee, palm sugar, and Thai basil. They work as the light sole dessert, but don't excel. Seek them out if you feel peckish.
For the eight dishes above and two popsicles to share, our table paid $35 a head before drinks (tip included). That's not highway robbery, but it's hard to swallow for a casual place that only partially delivers on its greater ambitions. Would I come back? For a beer and a nibble perhaps, but not, as it stands, a full meal. After all, despite the flaws, Nightingale 9's take on Vietnamese is still more exciting and interesting than most of New York's meager offerings. But if you take it as a source for creative Vietnamese, it falls short. If you take it as a neighborhood spot, it's an expensive proposition.
It's not that Newton, who's clearly a talented chef, has lost something in bringing a cuisine he loves to a new audience. It's that he doesn't take his good work far enough.