100 W. 82nd St. (between Amsterdam and Columbus)
WINES 45 choices, 13 by the glass
DRESS No code
NOISE LEVEL Moderate
PRICE RANGE $16-$27
WINE MARKUP 120%-325%
CREDIT CARDS All major
HOURS Dinner, Sun., 5 p.m.-10 p.m., Mon.-Wed., 6 p.m.-1 a.m., Thurs.-Fri., 6 p.m.-2 a.m., Sat., 5 p.m.-2 a.m.
* * * *= Outstanding
* * *= Excellent
* *= Very good
Michael “Bao” Huynh keeps moving right along, propelled by gifts that mark him as the most celebrated Vietnamese chef in town.
If there are disgruntled teammates in his wake, there are always new partners waiting to embrace him. Mr. Huynh's résumé includes star stints at Bao 111, Bun, Mai House and now BarBao, his new union with Main Street Restaurant Partners. They see him as a major rainmaker for their former Rain location.
Shedding its longtime Thai aura, the roomy restaurant (which has 162 seats) has a posh, sexy setting, with curvy banquettes and romantically lit tables filled with a mature clientele. Many jackets and even a few ties are in evidence.
There are a number of secluded dining areas that are fine for small gatherings. A 6-foot-long roll bar serves hand, spring and summer rolls. Design firm RKIT adds whimsy with a 15-foot mural fashioned of Vietnamese propaganda posters, shredded and repositioned to resemble a bar code, for BarBao.
Mr. Huynh's menu is succinct and flavorful, with small plates and big ones, noodles, rice and vegetables.
The most impressive starter among small dishes ($8 to $14) is daikon duck hash. Served in a cast-iron pan, the rich combination of duck confit and tiny, tender cubes of diced daikon pancake is bound together by a slow-poached egg and soy sauce.
Four tender frogs' legs in crispy, salty batter, for dipping in spicy garlic aioli, seem a tad pricey at $14. Summer rolls are two skewers holding a choice of shrimp, Berkshire pork, short ribs or vegetables. The four spring rolls hold a medley of pork, shrimp and jícama. Dunk "em in nuoc cham sauce—fish sauce, garlic, pepper flakes and lime juice—for the perfect nibbles.
Pineapple and chilies figure in the spicy beef salad, and jalapeño pesto gives a flavor bump to chef Huynh's baby lamb lollipops.
Many dishes large and small get the iron-pot treatment, from organic chicken cooked with quail eggs and ginger to a splendid bean-curd-glazed black cod served over red curry-laced sweet pepper stew.
A popular big-plate item is crispy Berkshire pork belly, prepared with taro, shishito peppers and kimchi-accented crosnes, tubers sometimes known as Chinese artichokes.
Other dishes highlight the potent French influence in Vietnamese cuisine. Loup de mer, for instance, is cooked with chanterelles and hearts of palm puree, in green curry broth.
BarBao offers some hearty noodle choices, from vermicelli with Berkshire pork belly and shrimp to a robust pho with rare Wagyu beef in anise-ginger beef broth.
I'm not crazy about the dish called “crispy whole red snapper.” A breaded, fried whole snapper does arrive at the table, but the fish is really a prop. I tried eating some of it only to discover that it is cold—just a curled cornucopia to display fried snapper nuggets in spicy sweet-and-sour sauce. I always enjoy clumsily chopsticking my way around whole fried fish, and this experience is not that by a long shot.
The three desserts ($8) are a flan of red dates, gingko nuts, lotus seeds and coconut emulsion; yucca waffle with dulce de leche and peanuts; and bread pudding with coffee froth and cinnamon gelato. Gelato?
The main bar/lounge of BarBao is a dim yet sultry place dispensing cocktails called China Beach, Taxi Girl, Red Dawn and Jane Fonda. The wine list is modest, but some markups are not.