November 5, 2007
What Momofuku did for ramen (turn it into a cult favorite capable of inciting frequent foodie riots), Bun (say BOONE!) clearly hopes to do for vermicelli rice noodles. This sleek new Vietnamese restaurant—a lean wood-paneled space decorated with sleeping Buddhas located on a dark stretch of Grand Street, is named for these thin silky alabaster threads (vermicelli rice noodles are called Bun in Vietnam), and they show up in almost every dish served on this “small plates” menu. You’ll find them stuffed and rolled up into summer rolls, filling up cold bowls piled with shrimp, steak, Berkshire pork belly and fish, and swishing around in steamy broth bobbing with clams, hen meat and crab. In short, wherever you turn, chances are you’ll find your chopsticks anchored in a fluffy cluster of vermicelli noodles. The chef moving vermicelli into the ramen spotlight is Bun’s owner, Michael Bao Huynh, who first splashed onto the scene with his melt-in-your-mouth short ribs skewered onto sugarcane at Bao 111 (from which he has severed his ties) and then expanded his empire to include Bao Noodles (from which he has also severed his ties) and recently opened Mai House—with Drew Nieporent, with which he is still associated. (Try to keep track, there may be a quiz).
What I found on my dinner visit last week, with a half dozen friends gathered together to welcome my brother to the city (he was visiting from SF), was that the focus on vermicelli is both a strength and a weakness of the restaurant. The strength lies in the fact that the dishes based on these noodles are uniformly good. Our welcome celebration started with “rolls”—more accurately fat rice skin wrapped snugly around a center of vermicelli noodles, and choices like duck, mustard greens, apple, and herbs with plum sauce ($6), shrimp, Berkshire pork belly, mint and peanut sauce ($5), and jicama with Chinese sausage, dry shrimp, egg, basil and peanut sauce ($6), and one simply vegetarian (my brother has been a vegetarian for three years now) filled up with mushrooms, jicama, and herbs with a soy dressing ($5). While we scarfed these down—enjoying the fresh, minty herbs and the cool chew of the noodles—somehow the fuller flavors of each of the fillings seemed to get lost in the shuffle. There was a rather uniform taste to these rolls that, while quite good, was disappointing because I wanted to taste the differences between them more than I did. I felt like somehow the noodles were taking the attention away from the more assertive and distinct flavors sharing space with them. Not necessarily a bad thing, just something to be aware of.
The rice noodles—uncoiled into a beautiful glossy pile of hay and straw—are also the main ingredient in the bun bowls. My favorite was the hanger steak ($11). Served medium rare in ruby red rectangles, the steak is draped over a cool clingy cushion of rice noodles folded over sliced apples, Asian mustard greens and mint, then drizzled with plum sauce. It’s light and fresh and just a lot of fun to eat, with every bite using chopsticks to snatch up a bit of every ingredient to make a perfect bite. The shrimp bun followed the same formula, with juicy grilled shrimp and Berkshire pork mingling with cucumber and herbs ($10). Though my cousin Melanie loved it, my least favorite was the fish, rubbed with a too strong dose of tumeric tossed with cucumber and dill and anchovy sauce ($12). But again, after a few bites, everything sort of tasted the same.
This flavor ubiquity was not the case with plates that stood on their own, without the noodles. For instance, the roast black cod with tomato and fennel relish ($12) was, as it should be, luscious hunk of fish, vaguely Nobu-esque. The King crab spring rolls, stuffed with pork and water chestnuts, were also exciting in their distinction from the rest of the menu—sweet and salty nuggets snuggled inside a crunchy wrapper shaped like a Moroccan cigar ($9). The spicy coconut curried mussels were also terrific—mussels swelling outside their shells, steamed in a feverish curry broth anchored by hunks of smoked bacon. Huynh also breaks out those signature sugar cane skewers—serving his old time favorite short rib, as well as pork ribs (wonderfully sticky with honey mustard glaze, $10), and ground spiced lamb with a chutney of quince and pear in an anise sauce ($12). These were vaguely Turkish to me, and were my favorite of the skewered selection.
As you might notice, not many of the dishes at Bun are appropriate for vegetarians, which surprised me, considering Vietnamese fare often at least features a green papaya salad or a vegetable broth, perhaps with tofu. My brother is a trooper, but we did have to “special order” for him, so that he could have a dinner that was a meal not just a snack. Kudos to the staff at Bun, particularly their lovely manager Julio, who made every effort to construct dishes without animal stock or parts so that we didn’t need to do a tofu run after dinner. The vegetarian Bun soup (not on the menu but should be) was a warm and soulful broth loaded with meaty (in a veggie kind of way) mushrooms.
That being said, I was surprised that David (my brother) didn’t get up and take leave of the table when the casserole of—hold on—duck hearts and tongues ($8) arrived. This was a gift from the chef (someone who I have written about and know from the business). I’ve gotten many gifts in my life, and I can honestly say that this was the first one that consisted of duck hearts and tongues. I don’t really see this as a popular Red Envelope choice. While I shook my head and held my hands over my eyes, Alison boldly went in, proving to be the most adventurous of all of us. (Who knew?) She pulled a few tongues out of their small cherry red Le Creuset pot, and stared at them for a while and then licked them (claiming she was making out with the ducks) and then took a bite, very pleased with herself that she had tried them. I was impressed because I couldn’t do it. The tongues looked like distorted pinky fingers and the hearts were literally (yikes) heart shaped, but the size of sugarplums, I know it’s hypocritical to eat the duck and shun the heart, but I couldn’t do it. I know they were glazed in seven warm spices, with lime and chile salt, which sounded so good to me, but I am weak. Tony Bourdain I am not. There will be no hearts eaten by this critic.
I did partake of the duck confit, however, tucked inside an egg pancake (brilliant) served over a daikon radish and potato tortilla (as in Spanish tortilla) with a red vinegar and soy dipping sauce ($12). This is a must-have dish and something I hope I will see on a brunch menu somewhere soon.
All dishes at Bun are called “small plates”, and while they are smallish, they are still big enough to share with one or two friends. They are served as they are ready, which means your meal will be a rather randomly ordered hodge-podge of skewers, summer rolls, salads, plates, cold noodles and broths, which is fine. I don’t recommend Bun for groups of larger than four, because the narrow space is really not big enough. We were seven and occupied the long banquette up near the door, which was comfortable, but unfortunately, quite drafty. Toward the back, booths for four keep you cozy, and are a better choice when the nights get cold. But the main feature of the restaurant is a 60-foot dining bar overlooking the open kitchen, which would be my choice for dining with one friend, or even on my own. Like the bar at Momofuku (moving this week to its new larger digs), it is a theater of its own, and the food is the sort made for eating side to side at the casual nature of the bar, free to slurp and share, and repeat. Get ready. The next noodle revolution is upon us.
Bun is located at 143 Grand Street, near Lafayette, 212-431-7999.