Ever since a large group of Americans acquired a taste for the cuisine of Vietnam 40 or so years ago, certain dishes have gained traction in the U.S., specifically bahn mi and pho. Yet this rich tradition, an amalgamation of delicate and heady Asian cuisine shaped by 100 years of French rule, hasn’t had the exposure it deserves.
Tet, a new restaurant in Alphabet City from O Mai’s Steven Duong, presumably named after the Vietnamese New Year and not the Offensive, is poised to lead a cadre at the higher end trying to change that. In this airy, glass-fronted space done in deep purple and burgundy, cozy banquettes under macramé chandeliers are an oasis from, and a vantage point to, this rapidly changing ‘hood. But maybe everyone’s just here for the food.
From the first appetizers and a cold bottle of nigori sake, this seemed a likely motivation. Delightful glazed ribs came first, not the baby back ribs the menu advertised, but meatier, more flavorful (yet less rich and tender) spare ribs. This additional meat — lemongrass-crusted with a spicy honey-plum sauce and chopped peanuts rendering them irresistible — was a welcome tradeoff. No tradeoff was needed for a yam, eggplant and onion tempura. All julienned, tossed en masse into a gauzy batter and deep fried, it arrived cut into four generous slices, each bite suffused with complex, addictive flavor. Less remarkable, but still fine, was a “salad roll,” really a summer roll stuffed with herbs, greens and sweet sausage.
Our two main courses were less even. A rice noodle soup with a rich, herbacious pork-tomato broth was unique yet homey, perfectly accenting the lump crab chunks slowly yielding within. Amazing. Yet a “house special” roast duck was atrocious. Overcooked, greasy, unseasoned, paired with a generic sweet-and-sour dipping sauce. Finishing our meal with banana tapioca cream cloaked in jackfruit and palm seeds again reminded me of childhood — not my childhood, mind you.
Unlike some new Asian restaurants, lunging at the culinary firmament but destined to close after the buzz dies down or better opportunities appear in a few years, Tet seems poised to stay, seeking neither fame nor fashion, instead channeling home. A rare aim on the new Avenue A.