Dish: Combo Vermicelli
Place: Ba Bar, Capitol Hill
In the bowl: From the menu: “Imperial roll, grilled white prawn, grass-fed beef bo mo chai, cucumber, rau thom.” This and more (see below) over cold rice vermicelli noodles.
Supporting cast: A side of nuoc cham (made with nuoc mam, a.k.a. fish sauce).
What to do: Pour the nuoc cham sauce over the top, mix as much as you’d like, and then start pulling items out of the bowl–a little of this and a little of that in each bite.
Noodling around: The cold vermicelli dishes enticed me immediately, as they’re perfect for summer nights. They’re made with rice vermicelli noodles (sometimes called rice sticks, or bun in Vietnamese) which are thin, so they get boiled quickly then cooled. These noodles are a great vehicle for a variety of toppings. As I couldn’t get the complete story from my server about the specials, I decided to simply try the “Combo Vermicelli” for some surf and turf tasting.
The beef sausage (bo mo chai, typically wrapped in lard) was bursting with flavor, and I appreciated the good grillwork on the shrimp–though I wondered if they were from a sustainable source. Departing from what was stated on the menu, there was a nice piece of grilled chicken as well. The imperial rolls added crispy texture to the dish. In addition to the advertised cucumbers, I found carrots, bean sprouts, and peanuts. I would have liked just a little more rau thom (Vietnamese herbs) to add flavoring, and a little more nuoc cham to lubricate the whole affair.
If you want more: With little yet up at Ba Bar’s website, I found a menu online elsewhere and had hopes for a grapefruit salad (with avocado and xi muoi–or Vietnamese preserved plums). But that has fallen off the menu (which understandably is getting tweaked), so I instead chose the Hue dumplings, also known as banh bot loc chay ($6). These mochi-like dumplings with mung beans, caramelized shallot, and spicy soy vinaigrette were appropriately chewy, but a bit wanting for flavor. (I’d prefer banh bot loc, made with shrimp and pork.) The grilled sardine with cucumber salad and dry shrimp ($8) I spotted at the next table looked more promising.
Be aware/beware: This is the fifth of Eric Banh’s restaurants, whose hand already held a pair of Monsoons and a pair of Baguette Boxes. Ba Bar (“Ba” means father in Vietnamese) has a noodle bar and street food feel. The space is compelling, starting with a fun glimpse of the kitchen (and rotisserie chickens) upon entry. I like the concept, which is casual and affordable, with a beautiful bar in the dining room.
The early problem is service. I’d read bad reports, and my experience was no different. I felt like I was part of a comedy troupe skit exaggerating restaurant mistakes–and yet it was all too real. Yes, yes, Ba Bar just opened earlier in the month. But just about every aspect of the dining experience ran afoul, from the server not knowing the dishes on the menu (or the ingredients in the dishes), to the poor timing of orders arriving at the table, to the clearing of items without asking, to a mis-delivery of dumplings after I had paid the bill. Seems the staff needed more training, or the restaurant needed a more prolonged soft opening. Reports are that Banh has his hands full trying to right the ship.
First published in Seattle Weekly’s Voracious on July 19, 2011.