After suffering through poorly conceived, souless fusion, Vietnamese
food can be a revelation. Under a century of French rule, Vietnam
developed a unique cuisine, rich with French and Southeast Asian
flavors and methods, more accessible than authentic Chinese, more
varied than Thai. Even after a lengthy war exposed America to the
bounteous, exotic land, there’s still a paucity of authentic Vietnamese
here, especially at the high end.
So I was psyched to go to Williamsburg’s Silent(h), whose owner eschews
Pho for more inventive fare and kitchen-sink menus in favor of an
edited list of six main courses. But the joys of this comfortable,
economical restaurant don’t lie in the food. A starter of Bahn Tom
Chien ($6) was bruschetta by way of ‘Nam, with shrimp and gritty mung
bean fried onto slices of delicate French bread. Underseasoned to
blandness, it made an interesting counterpoint to a Beef Carpaccio ($9)
touted for its intense heat. Sure, there was chili, but the raw beef
was just a conveyance for intense lime and cilantro. Yet it did inspire
me to drink more beer, which is fine because Silent(h) is BYOB — for
Lo Luc Lac ($14), Vietnamese steak frites, was composed of overcooked
hunks of inferior meat, grilled pineapple, artful shoestring fries and
a sweet chili ketchup. Replace the syrupy ketchup with an aioli and
grill some prime shortribs, and this could work — but beige
school-grade beef doesn’t belong in a restaurant. Banh Xeo ($12.50), a
Vietnamese crepe, was a more successful display of the nation’s French
heritage, as a slightly chewy mung bean crepe replaced the French
original, stuffed with a hearty combo of pork belly and shrimp. The
melting fat of the sparse pork belly amped up the flavor of the shrimp,
while a chili-coconut glaze added a sweet, hot and luscious mouthfeel
that was fantastic with the crunchy ends.
Dessert had the most interesting presentation, with four fried,
banana-stuffed wontons resting on kumquat whipped cream, draped in
coconut caramel, on Asian spoons. But it wasn’t quite enough.
Yes, the food was disappointing, but Silent(h) hits high notes a more
accomplished kitchen misses. The music, like the soundtrack to a
post-modern Brooklyn love story, was an eclectic wonder. And our
waitress had the unteachable gift of seeming genuinely interested in
everyone who came in, always ready with a cold beer — which were not
being tacked onto the bill — or a witty remark.
My party was alone by the time we finished — at 9:30pm. Even at these
prices, with gracious service, an open, modern space, and BYOB
convenience, its not hard to see why. What a shame.