Bia Garden, 154 Orchard St, 212-780-0010
Price Range: $8-$22
Rating: 4 out of 5 L's
Of all the restaurants Michael Huynh has opened in the last two years (BarBao, Pho Sure, Baoguette), Bia Garden is undoubtedly the most fun. That can partly be attributed to the focus on beer—Asian beers to be exact, a much-needed respite from the otherwise welcome glut of European imports and American craft beers in this city.
Before the drinking can begin, though, one must find the restaurant. At first glance, I took it for a takeout joint, with a lone man taking names and orders behind a counter. The real action is through a door that, despite its hulking metal appearance, does not open into a walk-in refrigerator but to a bustling (and a bit cramped) 50-seat patio.
The restaurant serves small plates with a Vietnamese bent, hittting that sweet spot where indulgence and innovation intersect. Case in point: the crab spring rolls, meaty mouthfuls of crab, pork and shrimp stuffed into perfectly fried wrappers. All eight disappeared before I could even wash down the savory shrimp taste with a cold San Miguel from the Philipines, one of 12 beers available.
Oh yes, this is supposed to be a beer garden (hence the boisterous din and a few communal tables), but you won’t find any steins here. Instead, you order ice-filled buckets packed with 6, 12 or 24 bottles of beer, of which you are charged only for the ones you drink. Frankly, I couldn’t figure out if this was a gimmick intended to test my self-control (“Well, I might as well have another one, since it’s just sitting there…”) or a brilliant catalyst for alcohol-induced conviviality. Regardless, it was nice to be able to pick from such an extensive selection of Asian brews, ranging from standards like Tsingtao and Sapporo to lesser-known brands like Vietnam’s 33 and Beerlao from Laos.
Other dishes besides the crab spring rolls performed the admirable task of soaking up one too many cold beers. A dish comprised of tender slivers of Berkshire pork belly, served with a thick, sweet fish sauce, perfectly balanced its crisped edges with its succulent, fatty center. Although nothing was bad, a few dishes lacked luster. Slices of sweet lemongrass sausage, meant to be paired with fresh basil and a mild ginger sauce, satisfied but could have used some heat. Salt and pepper shrimp were well-seasoned and smoky but were neither fresh nor plump enough to merit a rave. The less said about the tough frog meat in an otherwise vibrant glass noodle curry, the better.
Still, it’s hard to complain about this place. Bia Garden radiates such relaxed goodwill and admirable playfulness that I can hardly imagine walking out of it without a smile, if not a little drunk.