by Walter Nicholls, photography by Molly McDonald Peterson
In a metropolitan area flush with terrific Vietnamese eateries, the arrival of another food business serving beef noodle soup and spring rolls can raise a collective ho-hum. But innovative Ba Bay, which opened last fall in Washington’s Capital Hill neighborhood, is not your typical Viet restaurant. And that’s exactly what owner, Khoa Nguyen, had in mind.
“As far as I know, in the Vietnamese community, no one is doing what we do,” says Nguyen, a former manager of Vidalia restaurant in downtown Washington. He once called Ho Chi Minh City home. “It’s our concept—from the modern Vietnamese menu, to the ambiance, to our cocktail program, to where we source our food.” He credits his 83-year-old grandmother, Hoa Tran, for her knowledge of time-honored cooking and his inspiration. (Ba Bay, her nickname, translates to English as “Madame Seven.”)
But grandmother Tran is not in the Ba Bay kitchen. That would be too mom and pop for this reaching entrepreneur. Nguyen’s current chef is a classically trained American, formerly from Vidalia, with no Vietnamese cooking background. As it turns out, each brings their own expertise to the business.
Sara Siegel zeroes in on traditional Viet flavors, while presenting dishes in a contemporary way. The ever-changing menu may include chili glazed chicken wings or a dish composed of squid, lemongrass lamb sausage and crunchy mung beans with a toasted sesame cracker perched on top. Ladle into this kitchen’s noodle soup pho (pronounced “fuh”) and up come chunks of tender, juicy, dry aged, Black Angus rib eye from Roseda Farms in Monkton, Md. A wide variety of the vegetables and fruits are delivered from Fresh Link, the coordinated group of small Virginia farmers, who grow and deliver local foods to area restaurants. All-things-pig supplier Papa Weaver’s, in Orange, Va, is credited on the menu for the fragrant grilled pork with rice noodles.
“The supplier names on the menu are important for us,” says Siegel, as she takes a break in Ba Bay’s modest dining room. Simple basket lights hang overhead. “When the customers see them, they know we are supporting our local farmers and so are they for coming here.”
A native of Ellicott City, Md, Siegel started her cooking career at 18 in the kitchen of an Annapolis caterer. Inspired by the dynamics of the fast-paced work, she later attended the French Culinary Institute in New York. After two years at star chef Mario Batali’s restaurant Babbo in NY, she returned to the D.C. area for the Vidalia position. That’s when she met Nguyen.
For a Viet emersion, Nguyen took Siegel repeatedly for cooking lessons at his family’s home in Williamsburg, Va., and also to the Eden Center, a Vietnamese enclave of more than 100 restaurants and stores in Falls Church. After “hundreds of dishes” at Eden, Siegel discovered that “a lot of the cooking is very much the same. They will do, say, a pork coconut curry and then down the menu do a chicken dish with the same ingredients and flavors.” Her goal was to make every dish, which she created, distinct. Still, she shares that Nguyen’s family has been very critical of many of the restaurant’s takes on their native cuisine. “They know the concept is modern. But visually and flavor-wise it is hard for them to see the Vietnamese in it.”
That could not be true of her banh mi (pronounced “bah me”) cold cut sandwich, which may be the best in the region. Siegel makes her own chicken liver mousse and breaks down a Weaver pig for the house-made charcuterie trio of pork loaf, pork pate and trotter terrine. Topped with julienned pickled dikon, carrot and red onion, the whole works is tucked into a crusty baguette. The 50-seat restaurant’s has a popular happy hour which offers half price wine and beer, and smaller versions of their most popular dishes, including the banh mi. Or guests can choose to wash it all down with a Basil Fizz—a tall glass of gin, soda and gelatinous basil seeds that have been soaked in water. The refreshing drink is garnished with Thai basil and lime.
From dish to glass, Siegel uses a wide range of herbs which presents this chef with a challenge. Thus far, she has not found a local source for her “vanguard of Vietnamese cooking herbs:” red perilla, an anise-flavored member of the mint family; culantro, similar to cilantro but with a stronger taste; rice paddy herb, a lemon/cumin flavored member of the plantain family, and Vietnamese coriander, which is astringent and spicy.
“The problem is we are so small,” says Siegel, as she offers a taste sample of each herb. “I can’t just pick up the phone and ask a farmer to grow them for us. But I do want a local farm to support our herbs.”
633 Pennsylvania Avenue S.E.
Walter Nicholls is a former staff reporter for the Washington Post. A Native Washingtonian, he has written about farms, food markets and restaurants for 21 years. He resides both in the Georgetown section of Washington, and on an historic homestead in Rappahannock County, Va. Find him at walternicholls.com.
Grilled Pork Loin with Rice Noodles
1 pound pork loin cut into 4 equal slices
3 scallions, white ends
1 ½ tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons fish sauce
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
Mince then pound white ends of scallions until they have become pulverized. You can also use a food processor.
Mince shallots and garlic and add to scallions
Mix brown sugar with fish sauce, whisking until the sugar dissolves.
Mix all ingredients together and cover pork loin.
Cover and marinate overnight or a minimum of 4 hours, in the refrigerator.
(if you use a food processor, mince the shallots, garlic, and scallions separately. Then mix the rest of the ingredients by hand so that the marinade does not become a paste)
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
1 Thai chili, minced
1 1/2 cups bean sprouts
1 1/2 cups red onion, sliced thin
2 tablespoons chopped peanuts
4 cups fresh rice noodles (or dried noodles, reconstituted and measured as four cups)
4 tablespoons blended or olive oil
¼ cup fish sauce
1/2 cup chicken stock
2 tablespoons thin sliced scallions (use green tops from pork marinade)
Cilantro for garnish
To prepare noodles:
In a hot pan, cook the garlic, Thai chili, bean sprouts, onions, and peanuts in oil. After the onions have cooked down, place the fresh rice noodles in the pan, immediately followed by the fish sauce and chicken stock. Cook until the noodles are done, about 2 minutes. Finish with scallions and cilantro.
To cook pork:
Grill marinated pork loin for about 2 1/2 minutes on each side. Let rest for a minute or two, and then slice each piece and set over prepared noodles. Garnish with cilantro.