The main attraction at Madame Vo BBQ, now two months into its run on Second Avenue in the East Village, is a seven-course dinner on the theme of beef. This is a familiar concept in Vietnam, where it is known as bo bay mon, as well as in San Jose, Calif., Houston and other areas with robust Vietnamese populations. In New York, where the Vietnamese restaurant scene is more anemic, bo bay mon is still a rarity. The rough outlines of the setup at Madame Vo, though, will be familiar to any New Yorker who has gone out for Korean barbecue.
New York City bureaucracy is unwelcoming to the tabletop charcoal grills seen in Hanoi, so an electric grill under a metal screen is embedded in each table. Once the grill is switched on and the metal rods down at kneecap level begin to warm up, an array of sauces, condiments and vegetables will arrive. When the rods are red, a server with a pair of tongs will lay some meat down on the screen, return periodically to fiddle with it and eventually decide when it is ready to be eaten.
The similarities with, say, Han Joo Chik Naeng Myun & BBQ in Queens end, of course, with the actual food. Yes, both offer lettuce for wrapping, but at Madame Vo BBQ it is part of a Vietnamese table salad, along with fresh herbs; raw cucumbers, pineapple and apple; and pickled carrots and daikon. The restaurant also sets out a nifty caddy that holds circles of rice paper and warm water, in a miniature bathtub, for wetting the paper until it is soft enough to fashion into rolls.
Rather than gochujang and sesame oil, there is a classic Vietnamese nuoc cham, an intoxicatingly good version of the pineapple-and-fermented anchovy sauce known as mam nem, and lastly a tamarind sauce, which suggests Madame Vo BBQ can follow or leap over Vietnamese tradition at will.
This is about what you’d expect if you’ve eaten at another restaurant, a few blocks north, simply called Madame Vo. Jimmy Ly is the chef in both places; he and his wife, Yen Vo, are the proprietors. Each was raised in the United States by immigrants from Vietnam, and like many children of immigrants they seem to be fluent not just in two languages but in two cultures, enabling them to serve dishes their families might recognize in a setting that outsiders might embrace.
The wings at Madame Vo, sticky with caramel and fried garlic, are drive-straight-from-the-airport good. The restaurant produces some of the only pho in Manhattan worth talking about. One of them, in a porcelain bowl the size of a baptismal font, is filled with a potent beef broth, a short rib on the bone and enough other cuts to make a butcher smile.
At least one dish at the couple’s new restaurant can stand alongside the wings and the pho at their first: the oxtail congee. Congee, or chao thit bo, is customarily the last course in bo bay mon. It frequently takes the form of a cloudy beef-and-rice soup. Mr. Ly cooks his congee with some chicken stock until it has the consistency of polenta, then spoons over it some sweet and savory braised oxtails in honey, fish sauce and brown butter. Everything about it is wonderful, even the scallion greens on top.
The first of the seven beefs is typically boi tai chanh, a raw beef salad, and this is a high point, too. Lean eye of round cut into thin pink sheets is the canvas for an action-painting whirl of fried shallots, raw red onions, chopped peanuts and slivers of fresh mint. Pretty standard stuff so far, but then Mr. Ly bathes the salad in tangerine-lime vinaigrette, which has a positively buoyant effect, and splashes it with a bright-green, lemony pulp of fresh rau ram puréed in oil.
In the middle of this $59 menu come the grilled meats, the courses for which the table salad and rice paper wrappers have been waiting. The finest of these might be the relatively straightforward five-spice tongue, although the betel-leaf-wrapped bundles of seasoned ground beef — bo la lot — are soothing and stimulating at once, and the New York strip with marrow butter is a clever way to acknowledge Manhattan’s own beef-eating rituals, even if it would draw blank stares on the streets of Saigon.
If you, like me, are naturally skeptical when servers persistently push a big-ticket item, you might be tempted to blaze your own path through Madame Vo BBQ’s menu. But once you’ve tried the bo bay mon you have, by and large, seen the kitchen at its best.
Yes, you could get the whole catfish, and if you are not into beef perhaps you should. Despite what the menu says, the catfish is not grilled, but fried and then baked. It was perfectly done the night I had it, and was filleted at the table by a server who knew his way around a fish skeleton. By that time, all that was left to do was to wrap a chunk of fish in lettuce and rice paper with a squeeze of grilled lemon and some of the sautéed shallots, lemongrass and bird chiles that the kitchen had ladled along the snaking curve of the spine.
If you are thinking about a vegetable, the skewered and grilled okra pods in soy are crunchy and unslimy. The other appetizers, though, can be tricky. One night, the grilled scallop brushed with duck fat was transporting; on another, it tasted too much like the grill. Spring rolls filled with short rib and bone marrow seemed pointlessly indulgent, and so did their truffle hoisin dipping sauce in which I couldn’t taste the truffles.
A few dishes might have been improved if they’d arrived while hot, like the extra-large grilled oysters under caramelized sea urchin mayonnaise or the charred sea urchin, basted in its shell with butter, sake and fish sauce. Grilled prawns brushed with a lovely orange butter were slightly more mushy than two prawns sold for $38 should be. And while the 44-ounce tomahawk steak was more than a fair deal at $90, it would have been helped by a more aggressive sear and more salt.
On certain nights, the whole operation had a slack, inattentive feeling that’s rare in new restaurants. The catfish sat on the table, getting cold, while we waited for the table salad to show up. The thick stems of stir-fried morning glory would have been better cut into shorter lengths.
Madame Vo BBQ may eventually run as smoothly as its older sibling. While it works out the mechanics, the surest route to happiness is to eat the bo bay mon while sipping cold coconut water through a metal straw out of a whole green coconut that you hold in one hand, like a cup of coffee.
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