Our latest installment of Quick Bites brings us to East 4th Street for Vietnamese food.
Another Vietnamese restaurant opened last Friday in the East Village, which is an always welcome development in any neighborhood, especially when, as is the case of Van Da, the menu focuses on regional dishes you don't find everywhere else. The owner here is Yen Ngo, a fine-dining restaurant veteran who grew up with this food, and running the kitchen is Gramercy Tavern alum Hannah Wong. Together these "warrior women" (which is how you'd translate Van Da) are determined to bring something new to the scene.
There's no exterior signage yet, but the restaurant is in that awkward bi-level space near Avenue B that used to be The Cardinal (among other things). At street level there's a small dining room with a dozen seats—it's still unfinished, decor-wise, so it looks a bit forlorn when no one else is there—and a staircase unfortunately positioned right near the front door, cutting the bar area in two. Should you find yourself in a waiting-for-a-table situation there's a small holding pen by the front window, with a few stools and a counter for drinks.
Downstairs is cozier, even a bit lounge-y, and can accommodate about 24 at various tables and wrap-around banquettes. Either way, it's easy to get comfortable once you're seated. There's also the friendly, attentive service—Ngo herself often brings over a plate or two, explaining why the dish is important to her personally—and the deft pacing of the meal, a forgotten skill in today's "we'll bring out the stuff whenever it's ready" environment.
The Van Da menu is divided into six categories, starting with a handful of Street Food items and then three sections defined by the dishes' city of origin. So there's a section dedicated to the foods and flavors of Hue (Ancient, Refined, Royal), and one for Hanoi (Traditional, Authentic, Subtle), and a third for Saigon (Bold, Modern, Driven). This is all immediately exciting because most everything is unfamiliar at first glance; there are no bowls of Pho to be had, for example, nor Bahn Mi anything. Even better: everything I ate across the whole menu was great.
All four of street snacks appeal, but I loved my rich and gloppy Pho Short Rib Grilled Cheese one night (for maximum pleasure, sip, don't dip, the shot of broth) and my Red Curry Corn Fritters the next. The latter start out sweet and then deliver a nice little kick once you get into them. The Stir-Fried Pho Noodles are the obvious pick in the Hanoi section, the slippery rice noodles complemented beautifully with bitter greens and earthy trumpet mushrooms. This dish works particularly well with a squirt or two from the bottle of housemade Nuoc Cham, available upon request.
My favorite dishes across two meals were probably from Hue, including the beautifully textured, intensely flavored tapioca dumpling stuffed with pork and shrimp, called Bahn Bot Luc; and the turmeric Bahn Khot, which are crisp, bite-sized little saucers filled with wild mushrooms and creamy coconut custard. You get about a half dozen of these, and they will be gone in well under a minute. The largest, most entree-sized dish is the Bo Luc Lac, or Shaking Beef, and it's an excellent version of the Saigon classic. The meat is tender and juicy, the chunks of sunchoke really satisfy, and the whole thing is buried under a bright watercress salad. For something a bit more unusual, the Grilled Eggplant with ground spiced lamb is also a winner.
And don't skip dessert! Ngo and Wong's Vietnamese Yogurt Panna Cotta, topped with tart golden berries, is rich, tangy and refreshing; and the superb Che, or Coconut Tapioca Pudding, costars caramelized green banana and—secret ingredient alert—tiny bits of crackling peanut brittle.
Van Da is a terrific restaurant. There's a bit of a small plates dynamic going on here—two people should get at least four, and probably five, things, plus a dessert—which can add up, price-wise. But the food is so good, and made with such obvious love, that you won't regret it.
Van Da is located at 234 East 4th Street, between Avenues A and B, and is open Tuesday through Thursday 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., and on Friday and Saturday from 6 to 11 p.m.. Closed Sunday and Monday. (vanda.nyc)