Show Me the Hue …
Vietnamese in the Village
Charles de Gaulle once said of Brazil, ” Ce n’est pas un pays serieux .” When it comes to restaurants, God knows what he would have made of Hue (pronounced “hway”). It’s the only restaurant I’ve ever been to that has a lounge with two queen-size beds-covered with fake fur throws, no less. If these beds were put together end to end, they would have been just long enough for de Gaulle to stretch out for a good night’s sleep. But what would he have made of the young women packed into this place, with their tattooed ankles, Burberry print dresses and candy-colored Louis Vuitton handbags? For most of them, the name Hue probably connotes a brand of stockings, not a historic city in Vietnam. The menu is a mix of Vietnamese specialties, Japanese sushi and a selection of over a dozen kinds of strange fusion rolls, one of which is made with goat cheese, wasabi, curry powder, coconut and salmon.
Apart from the bouncer standing at the door, you’d never guess from the outside that Hue is a scene. It’s on a deceptively quiet, tree-lined corner of Greenwich Village, where Charles Street intersects with Bleecker. The turn-of-the-century exterior (the building used to house an Italian trattoria) does nothing to prepare you for the sleek Asian interior or the immense scale of the place, with its various dining rooms and lounges on two levels, all set out with the help of a feng shui master. There’s a blue-backlit bar that faces picture windows giving onto the street. You can eat up front by the bar, at tables placed along a banquette, or in an adjacent dining room, where one evening a raucous all-girl birthday party nearly sent the rest of the customers screaming out the door before they’d finished their dinner. One member of the party in particular had the sort of high-pitched shrieking laugh that P.G. Wodehouse famously described as like hearing a squadron of cavalry on a tin bridge.
To reach the main dining room, you descend a flight of stairs into what used to be a courtyard. The space, which is now enclosed, has a sloped ceiling with octagonal skylights, a slate flagstone waterfall, chandeliers and walnut-paneled walls. It’s elegant and spacious but noisy, and on another night I could have sworn that the woman with the ear-splitting laugh was back again, sitting at the table behind us. So much for all that feng shui.
Hue, which opened three months ago, is owned by Frank Prisinzano, who has three wildly popular Italian restaurants-Frank, Supper and L’il Frankie’s Pizza on the Lower East Side-and Karim Amatullah, formerly of Halo. The chef, Junnajet Hurappan, is from Thailand and was previously at Ruby Foo’s.
You can start off your meal with muc xaolang, tender ribbons of wok-seared squid, or thit nuong Saigon, marinated pork skewers with nuac chamh sauce and rice noodles. The pork has a subtle charcoal taste and is slightly spicy. Nha trang-Vietnamese meatballs made with pork, beef and Asian herbs-are also excellent, served on a bed of steamed rice noodles. But the cha gio (spring rolls stuffed with shrimp and chicken) is just so-so, and the chao tom (pounded shrimp wrapped around thick skewers of bamboo) is tasteless. Instead, get the banh cuon: large, silken, floppy Vietnamese ravioli made from rice flour, stuffed with shrimp and served in an aromatic fish sauce.
I don’t know what to make of the “special rolls.” There are over a dozen to choose from, and their fillings stretch things a bit, to put it mildly. Eel with cucumber, avocado and spicy salmon? Snow crab with mango and mandarin? Sun-dried tomato roll? (Just the thing to go with your lemon basil martini, perhaps.) But as de Gaulle said of France-just to show that he could be an equal-opportunity curmudgeon-how can you govern a country that has 246 cheeses? (Don’t worry, this is the last time I’ll mention him in this piece.)
The main courses are a mixed bag. Ca xot gung-”ginger-kissed” cod-is made with a fine piece of seared fish which is not simply kissed, but overwhelmed by a ginger purée and scallion oil. Ca nuong chao (seared salmon with a tamarind glaze) is a better choice, served with sweet and sour onions that compliment the richness of the fish. Vit dac biet (two-way duck) is very good, with a marinated charred breast and a crispy leg confit, served with spinach.
Cari ga xao lan-a yellow curry in a clay pot made with chicken, long beans, eggplant and crispy shallots-is pleasant, and I’d probably have liked it more had I not unexpectedly inhaled a whole chili. And the tom xao mang (red shrimp curry with fresh bamboo shoots) is first-rate. Get it with two side dishes: eggplant with ginger and basil, and the coconut sticky rice, both of which are delicious.
Deep-fried whole fish is always a risky choice in an Asian restaurant, because it so often arrives overcooked. Ca ran (crispy whole fish), its flesh scored in a criss-cross pattern and deep-fried into a curl, had a nice crunchy skin but was, not surprisingly, dry underneath. It was rescued somewhat by a zesty sauce made with tamarind, chili and basil.
Hue’s desserts are Western, but sometimes get an Asian accent. Apple-banana spring roll brings a smile to your face, with its bunny ears made of slivered fried banana. It comes in a bamboo dish and is garnished with a dollop of vanilla ice cream. I don’t get the point of the Saigon tea in the crème brûlée, which is creamy under its sugar glaze. Molten chocolate cake may be a cliché, but I like it, and at Hue it comes with anise-poached pears and a dollop of cinnamon ice cream.
The trouble is, there’s nothing truly memorable about the food at Hue. Several dishes are unexpectedly good, though there’s not one I would rush back for. Hue is fun and a hit with a young crowd, but I expect you’re more likely to remember the person you go home with (if you’re so lucky) than what you ate there for dinner beforehand.