Chef John Nguyen had a good thing going in China. He was running his own restaurant, enjoying the lifestyle — especially around this time of year, when he remembers his cold culinary school winters in Vermont. But after seeing a Craigslist ad for the East Village's Hanoi House (119 St. Mark’s Place), he decided to come back to New York and cook the food of his Vietnamese heritage.
The new restaurant is the work of Buddakan power couple Sara Leveen and Ben Lowell, a product of their travels through Vietnam and Nguyen's family recipes. It may be in the East Village, but it’s easy to feel transported in the cozy space, with tropical plants lining the walls and decorative accents of Old Hanoi. The front room is meant to evoke a bustling cafe (there’s also a quiet back room that may as well have a “couples only” sign), but you should opt to sit at the bar, where Nguyen may slide you an amuse bouche of the freshest uni, served on the half shell.
Further into the menu, heat rolls in like a summer storm in the Pomelo & Shrimp salad, glistening with ruby red chunks of grapefruit and shrimp crackers that dissolve on the tongue like Pop Rocks. The side dish of brown butter-braised ong choy is basically a virtuous dessert (you’re welcome). But the starring role belongs to the Congee & Clams, which ditches the grease and salt of pork for chicken stock to build flavor with each bite, accented with peanuts and scallions. Close your eyes and imagine you’re eating it around a bonfire on a beach, a warming reminder that summer is on its way.
I can’t wait for lunch service to start, which will bring its own menu of regional soups. The music is the alternative rock and reggae of Nguyen’s Orange County childhood, the drinks menu is local beers and wine, and there’s already a wait despite having just opened a couple weeks ago. Wait anyway.