Dining in New York City is tough.
Now, hear me out. In any big metropolitan area, it’s hard to argue with the fact that hype can often get in the way of truly enjoying a restaurant. High expectations or any at all, almost always lead to disappointment. It’s why I’ve trained myself to expect the worst in high stress situations to lessen the blow of defeat. Like wondering if he’ll call (he won’t) or will I land that dream job interview (keep dreaming) or can I handle XYZ (the answer, quite simply, is no). I’ve come to realize that I seek some sort of masochistic-type solace in moments of panic. Problematic? Yes. Exhausting? Understatement. But if anything, this uncanny (read: deranged) defense mechanism has allowed me to be truly appreciative of the beauty of life's unexpected miracles.
In short, expect nothing. And be happily surprised on a daily basis. You heard it here first.
New York City boasts an intimidating number of dining destinations. So intimidating, in fact, it becomes a chore to even wrap your head around the enormity of its seemingly infinite and legendary restaurant scene. This is a first world problem in all its gluttonous glory.
But in a city of over 18 million people, when a new hot spot gains serious notoriety, it can feel like all 18 million are jonesing for a chance to experience it at the same time. This makes getting in on the action a near impossible feat.
There’s also this: I’m not a fan of crowds. I think it’s why I don’t bode particularly well in large groups, either—something about the fear of getting lost in the shuffle. No, I’m not insecure. Why do you ask?
This notion of neglect can rear its gnarly head in the food world, too. All the hype and hysteria and tweets and tout can swallow a restaurant whole and spit it right back out for everyone on the corner of 6th and Carmine to see. The focus turns to the scene and the stereotypically flashy clientele while the food, devastatingly, gets moved to the proverbial back-burner. Because who cares about a pressed ficelle with a gorgeous schmear of fresh uni and powerfully piquant Korean mustard when the distracted diners prefer shrimp cocktail and a never-ending glass of Pinot Grigio. And could I get some ice on the side?
The first time I noticed the unassuming Vietnamese restaurant, Co Ba, was one day during lunch when I was hurriedly walking by on 9th Avenue in lower Chelsea, only to stop abruptly in my tracks at the sight of a Banh Mi (Vietnamese baguette sandwich). While the Banh Mi could easily be considered another one of New York City’s crazed trends du jour, it was one that I hadn’t yet indulged in. But it was, however, one that I’d admittedly been dying to try.
The narrow and dimly lit space is modestly decorated with calming jade walls, small dark mahogany tables and a pseudo art installation made up of Vietnamese straw conical hats. A sweet and smiling waiter happily handed me a menu to peruse when I noticed an old Lisa Loeb album, reminiscent of my childhood, was playing. For reasons unbeknownst to me, I immediately decided I liked the place. But first, it was time get into the Banh Mi Thit ($7).
I unfolded the neatly wrapped parchment paper to reveal a generously sized baguette, bursting at the seams with fresh cilantro and matchsticks of vibrant sweet-pickled carrots and daikon. Inside, an unobtrusive swipe of mayonnaise was topped with tender and slightly charred pieces of grilled honey plum glazed pork followed by slivers of Vietnamese country pate and finished off with paper-thin slices of jalapeno. At the first crunch of the baguette, getting a bit of each and every component in one bite, I couldn’t help but smile as I chomped and chewed. The sandwich was a mélange of unexpected combinations of textures and flavors. And yet, somewhat mysteriously, it all worked magnificently. Not a single element missing; not a single component out-shined by the next. It was a lesson in perfectly orchestrated balance.
The next time I visited Co Ba was during the dinnertime rush. It had been the answer to the much-dreaded question(s): "Where should we go for dinner? Who can accommodate us? Do we need a reservation?" Typically, on a Friday night the answer is something along the lines of "Nowhere." The thought alone of trying to weasel our way into a bustling restaurant during primetime only to get slammed with a two hour long wait made me want to shimmy on out of my skinny jeans and hide under my down-laden covers. Make it stop!
But this time around, I was armed with a confident answer. And one that was, ever-so-conveniently, a mere two blocks away.
Co Ba was not empty. Nor is it ever, really. But no matter what or when, there always seems to magically be a table available whenever a craving strikes. We waltzed right in and were greeted, as always, with a warm smile and a right-this-way gesture to our table. Typically, when I'm dining at this price-point (which, by the way, is affordable), my service expectations are not very high. It should be noted, however, that the wait staff is so genuinely kind and inviting. There aren't many places where I'd feel comfortable requesting a table for one. But here? Safe. Unpretentious. Welcoming.
A great advantage to Co Ba's dinner menu is their selection of small plates, all of which beg to be shared. An order would not be complete without a plate of Goi vit where shredded ginger poached duck tops a crunchy cabbage salad with basil, shallot crisps, and a lime ginger dressing loaded with chilies ($7). Grilled prawns wrapped in delicate rice paper with rice noodles, basil and lettuce sing once dunked into the peanut dipping sauce served alongside (Tom con $7). Then move your chopsticks over to some refreshing green papaya salad dressed with basil, shrimp, coconut-braised pork belly, crushed peanuts, and a spicy lime dressing (Goi du du $6). A safe and less daring choice, perhaps, are the shrimp, pork, and vegetable spring rolls (Cha Gio $6) but when they're served with lettuce and fresh herbs and a sweet and sour lime dipping sauce, it's hard to turn down at least one crispy, fried morsel. Less successful was the wok-seared lemongrass curry monkfish with basil, chili, onion, and peanuts (Co bam $8). Sadly, what sounded so promising left much to be desired. Thirsty? They've got a few by the glass options but I urge you to go with a bright and zippy New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. The citrusy acidity is the perfect match to the heat levels here. Prefer a cocktail? The kumquat margarita on the rocks will do you more than just fine. I promise.
After grazing through a lively selection of small plates, it's time to move towards the more substantial. The Banh Mi makes a dinner-time appearance with grilled five spice beef topped with watercress, house-made sweet pickled carrots and daikon, red onion, and jalapeno (Banh mi bo, $8.50). Cut neatly into thirds, this transcendental steak sandwich will have your table for two eyeing one another for that third and final piece. The charred, almost sugary pieces of tender beef paired with the peppery bite of the watercress make for a truly special moment—it just makes sense. What doesn't make sense, however, is why the Banh out thit nuong noodle dish is described on the menu as “house-made ravioli.” Imagine instead, a rice noodle pappardelle. Grilled honey glazed pork and julienned Vietnamese country ham top wide ribbons of rice noodles with basil, cilantro, chunks of cool cucumber, bean sprouts, shallot crisps, and finished off with the ever-popular chili-lime sauce ($15). The combination of textures and flavors and temperatures playing on this plate are nothing short of a stroke of genius. That's the thing about Vietnamese food—the balance is unlike anything you've ever experienced. Inventive and exciting in a way that never bores.
If you're still hungry, the pan seared red snapper in a spicy lemongrass-pineapple sauce ($19) is handsomely presented with sprigs of cilantro and a side of Jasmine rice. It's crisp and sweet and the fish is fall apart tender and without warning, the heat chilies pull a sneak attack on you. But, a sip of that Sauvignon Blanc, heavy with grapefruit and green-grass notes will put that fire out in no time. And leave you grinning. For days.
After the table has been cleared and I swirl that last sip of wine around in the glass, I notice Norah Jones's sweet and slightly raspy voice and smile. Trendy? Well, maybe eight years ago. But I'll take calm and nurturing over swanky and trendy any day of the week.
And it's not just because there's no line to battle to get in but because of the downright deliciousness of the food being served. Unassuming and unexpected.
In short, expect nothing. Perfection will soon follow.