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The proof is in the pudding!

SHOULD MAKE A HO CHI MINT

VIETNAMESE-Y EASY TO LIKE 

Chef: Michael "Bao" Huynh

December 3, 2008

BARBAO is the Asian flower that was missing from the Upper West Side's culinary blossoming. Perched precariously in an imaginary realm between the Mekong Delta and Columbus Avenue, it delivers on its promise to bring real exoticism to a district still subsisting on starchy Chinese takeout and dreary Thai curry.Imperfect and not 100 percent consistent, almost-Vietnamese BarBao thrilled me on every visit. Raw materials like black cod and Angus beef cheeks are first-rate. Sauces, spices and chilies lurking at the bottom of little clay and iron pots ignite starbursts of palate-expanding flavors. Rain - BarBao's timid pan-Asian predecessor on the site - this place ain't.After a strong start in the '90s, Rain ran out of rain-forest steam with a menu that read more colorfully than it tasted. BarBao is owned by the same team but reinforced by Saigon-born executive chef/partner Michael "Bao" Huynh, a star of the downtown dining scene for the past six years.If its ceiling were higher, BarBao could be in TriBeCa. White brick walls, rattan ceiling and a few columns make an understated stage for a menu needing no Vegas-y shtick. Big round booths ring the main room; pillowed sofas and a tasting bar lend lounge-scene cred to the sprawling rear.One night, after consuming a few "Jane Fondas" (a cocktail made with rum, ginger liqueur and mint) in one of the party booths, we too loudly joked about a "disgusting" dish we'd had elsewhere. The BarBao people take their place very seriously, and the waiter put on a traumatized look. We told him we were talking about a different restaurant, but he looked unpersuaded. Cheer up, dude!BarBao is far removed from worthy but formulaic nearby favorite Saigon Grill. This is refined, Manhattanized cooking - there's not a wok to be found in the kitchen. Huynh admits adding "my signature" to most dishes. As Michael Psilakis did for Greek cuisine at Anthos, Huynh sets out to replicate Vietnamese "flavor constellations" without mimicking actual Vietnamese recipes.Take sizzling cuttlefish with spicy "salsa verde," a dish Huynh first created at Bun downtown. The tender, neutral-flavored cuttlefish anchor a potent potpourri of Vietnamese mint, shrimp essence, bird eye chili, lime, anchovies, kaffir lime, yuzu, fish sauce and olive oil - a crackling, East-West interplay of sweetness and spark.Get past a pair of ordinary prawns atop "Mekong market" clay pot, and you'll find a jungle brew of fish, spices and chilies that wants lapping up with a spoon - or soaking up with a mound of very sticky rice and Chinese sausage.Not to miss is messy, gooey daikon duck hash fortified with house-cured duck bacon and spiced duck confit; a poached egg on top stands in for the pan-fried egg traditionally used in southern Vietnam.BarBao is bracingly cheap. Small plates are mostly $12, and large plates run from $16 to $27, with most in the low $20s. You'll be especially glad for the gentle damage when you encounter duds like roast duck breast that put me to sleep after one bite, and baby lamb lollipops that should have stayed on the stick.The only real question mark is the chef's long-term presence. Huynh didn't stay long at Bun, Bao 111 or Drew Nieporent's Mai House, and if he were to leave BarBao for whatever reason, the place might not recover.Huynh not surprisingly insists his commitment is deep and undying: "I'm there seven days a week," he says. "I'm happy with my partners. It's like a marriage."Of course, so were Ivana and Rossano for all of eight months - but we're counting on Huynh to make us forget all that.steve.cuozzo@nypost.comBarBao100 W. 82nd St.

212-501-0776

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