New York is filled with so many “pan-Asian” restaurants that it can be difficult to get excited about yet another one setting up shop.
Vietnamese pork chops? Been there. Summer rolls? So, so done that.
And Obao, Michael Huynh’s newest addition to his rapidly expanding string of Manhattan restaurants, hits these and all the other usual notes that you’ll find at many other similarly billed places in the city.
What’s different? Not much, compared with your run-of-the-mill multi-ethnic Asian restaurant.
There are some hits — anything meaty and/or grilled. And, of course, some misses, namely a “spicy” Singapore laksa (pictured above) that’s so watered down that its broth tastes like hot water with some curry powder tossed in toward the end.
But here’s the thing: Even at Obao’s recession-friendly prices (which put entrees between $9 and $18), for those who enjoy a hearty bowl of noodle soup or a crisp papaya salad now and then, there are just so many other places in the city to go for better versions.
So, why eat here?
Well, let’s start with the good. The spicy lemongrass short ribs had us at first whiff, even before the waiter set the still-sizzling dish down on the table.
The marinade was packed with flavor and the sweet onions were a lovely accompaniment. I literally could not stop my hands from automatically moving my chopsticks back to this dish each moment I was done chewing.
Ditto the eggplant appetizer with chunks of pork, chilis and shallots ($9). The pork was super tender and the spicy and salty flavors worked well together.
And you’re hearing this from someone who doesn’t particularly like eggplant.
My one quibble with this dish was how oily it was — it’s something that you’ll notice once the contents of the bowl have vanished and you’re left to contemplate the significant pool of oil that’s left behind.
The meats — they’re good, especially the spare ribs, glazed with a spicy mustard sauce and grilled on a sugar-cane skewer ($9).
Two rounds of these later, we still weren’t sick of them.
And the hanger steak with vermicelli ($12) was perfectly grilled and nicely flavored.
Here’s where the verdict got less unanimous — the Lao yellow rice ($10) with bits of duck confit, garlic and chives was tasty to some but so-so to others.
Mainly, it instantly reminded me of the far superior and unforgettable arroz de pato at Aldea — a paella-style dish that includes both soft and crunchy bits of rice harvested from the bottom of the pan and is studded with chunks of duck crackling, confit and chorizo.
Of course, Aldea’s duck rice is close to three times the price of Obao’s. But, still. If you have a hankering for duck confit rice, I’d do Aldea any day.
The $14 plate of Vietnamese pork chops was a mixed bag — somewhat tasty but much, much too salty.
And the bun bo hue ($9) a noodles in a lemongrass soup with pig’s feet and beef shin was decent. But the broth — a key component of this dish — was on the tepid side flavor-wise and won’t blow you away.
Obao’s $8 papaya salad isn’t a bad specimen of the dish.
But it did suffer from having whole, instead of shredded basil leaves — this meant you could either end up with no trace of basil in one bite and an overpowering mouthful of basil in the next.
I was excited to see turmeric and dill fish over vermicelli noodles ($13) on the menu. I’ve come to enjoy this dish from Hanoi, where it’s called cha ca la vong. I particularly like how the refreshing, green taste of dill together with heady turmeric combines to give the fish and noodles big one-two punches.
Both flavors, however, were hard to detect in our bowl at Obao.
Sampling this dish made me start to think fondly of the Asian sandwich version of cha ca la vong that I tried at Xie Xie in Midtown this summer. It wasn’t perfect but it sure had zest.
When dishes at a new restaurant send you into a sepia-toned fog of reminiscing over better meals you had at other restaurants, it’s probably a sign.
This blind date, it didn’t work out. Now to cue a return to the tried and true.
Obao, 222 E. 53rd Street, Tel.: 212.308.5588