Not his grandmother's Vietnamese menu

Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 15, 2010; E03

Khoa Nguyen tagged his Capitol Hill restaurant for his grandmother and put on the menu pho, banh mi and shrimp wrapped around sugar cane. But he hired a chef with serious Italian credentials - Nick Sharpe, a former sous-chef at the late Maestro in Tysons Corner (and more recently, the top dog at Sonoma on the Hill) - to help develop the concept.

"I didn't want to open a traditional Vietnamese restaurant," explains Nguyen, who left his job as a manager at Vidalia downtown to launch the 49-seat Ba Bay in November. "We already have that." Instead, he aims to "push the envelope a little bit."

Green wainscoting and overhead wood poles meant to evoke the bamboo roofs in Vietnamese villages give the dining room (formerly Locanda) the feel of the outdoors.

That banh mi is served only at lunch. The kitchen at Ba Bay is small, says Nguyen, and the Vietnamese sandwich, which uses house-made charcuterie, is fairly labor-intensive. Though the bread is admirably crusty, even the pickled vegetables tucked inside were overwhelmed by too much mayonnaise. Similarly, soy sauce took shredded purple cabbage, carrots and peanuts hostage in a colorful salad. A side dish of Brussels sprouts was sweet enough to qualify as dessert. And the sprouts were soggy.

It took some digging on a recent scouting trip to find something I wanted to finish. Persistence paid off with pork belly that shows up as a tall block of crisped fat garnished with a few steamed clams and encircled by a light reduction of pork broth. The surf and turf is both elegant and tasty. Messier, but even better, are the chicken wings, glossy with a sweet chili glaze. Their fine crunch, evident through the last bite, comes from a double dip in batter and two turns in the fryer.

Two-tone popsicles are offered for dessert: biting citrus sorbet fused with creamy ginger ice cream on my visit. The confection, which will change flavor with the season and gets a drift of toasted coconut Chantilly cream, is part of Nguyen's self-described "unconventional" recipe for his restaurant. Bring more on.

633 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 202-547-1787. Entrees, $14 to $20.

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