The East Village is about to gain another modern Vietnamese restaurant, this time focused on the food of Ho Chi Minh City, Hue, and Hanoi.
Van Đa, located at 234 East Fourth St. between avenues A and B, opens on March 15 and comes from restaurateur Yen Ngo and Gramercy Tavern alum chef Hannah Wong. The duo is resisting traditional versions of pho or banh mi on the menu, with Ngo instead harking back to the food of her youth in Vietnam that she doesn’t often find here.
The menu is split into three sections of food from those three cities, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in south Vietnam; Hue, in the middle and which was once the royal capital of the country; and Hanoi up north. Ngo says that the food of central Vietnamese city Hue is very time-intensive and complex, though with gentle flavors, and she’s not seen many versions of it here. One example is shrimp and pork tapioca dumplings, which are made from tapioca flour and steamed in banana leaves. Dishes from other categories include stir-fried pho noodles and lemongrass beef tartare.
“It’s all the same things — pho and banh mi and the same dishes — over and over and over,” Ngo says of Vietnamese restaurants in NYC. “No one really does something different. We have hundreds of dishes.”
Both women have finer-dining experience, with Ngo at now-closed restaurants like Longbar in San Francisco and Wong at Gramercy Tavern and Battersby. They met at a social event and Ngo recruited Wong for her catering company Real Food Catering, where they work on recipes for Van Da — which means “warrior woman” in Vietnamese — in their spare time.
“Being a woman in this business, it’s all men, and not that there’s anything wrong with it, but I wanted someone I can relate to and someone that struggles the way I do,” Ngo says.
It’s a very personal project for Ngo, who is not catering her menu for American palates. She’s taking morning glory and sautéing it with fermented bean curd, which she says has a very “rich, delicious flavor,” instead of the more commonly seen garlic and fish sauce.
“They don’t think to do this flavor for Americans because it’s not safe,” Ngo says. “But Americans are now more adventurous than ever. We are yearning for more not less.”
Van Da will have a full bar on the ground level with eight cocktails that utilize Vietnamese ingredients such as lemongrass, kumquat, and tamarind. Downstairs is the 30-seat dining room.
The East Village has become something of a hub for modern Vietnamese fare. Hanoi House and Madame Vo are leaders in the genre, and farther afield there’s Di An Di and Bunker. Van Da will join the bunch later this month. Stay tuned for more.