It wasn’t that long ago that New York’s idea of an upscale Vietnamese restaurant was Le Colonial. Appealing to a misplaced nostalgia for French colonialism, it was ensconced in an elegant mansion on East 57th Street with decor that ran to padded wicker wing chairs, potted palms, and slow-twirling ceiling fans, like a scene from Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. It closed last year, but the food had often been good in its 25-year run.
Now a more modern take on Vietnamese fine dining has symbolically replaced it. Opening on Williamsburg’s Bedford Avenue in late February before the pandemic hit, Bolero is named after a dance craze in 1950s Vietnam, according to chef Matt Le-Khac, who previously ran pop-ups at the Lower East Side’s late, lamented An Choi. He also earned a Ph.D. in pharmacology at Columbia University.
Bolero possesses a decor that broadcasts a more working-class perspective on life in Vietnam, although with the polished touches of a fine dining restaurant. At the doorway, find distinctive black tiles painstakingly sourced in Hanoi, Le-Khac tells me, and wonderful Southeast Asian cinder blocks with fluted perforations intended to admit breezes during the hottest months.
To the right as you enter is a small shop selling Vietnamese products, including three types of fish sauce, spring-roll wrappers, tapioca starch, condensed milk, and sometimes fresh produce grown at a four-acre farm near West Chester, Pennsylvania, run by Le-Khac’s father, that specializes in herbs hard to find in the States.
Another pandemic adaptation is two outdoor seating areas, one partly enclosed right on Bedford Avenue, the other a lovely fenced backyard with further herb plantings. Originally intended as a tea garden, it’s now been repurposed with electric heaters for winter dining.
After you order, Le-Khac may stray into the garden to clip a few herbs with a scissors, as he did when three friends and I ordered pomelo crab salad ($23). This pretty bowl of bright pink fruit and snowy clumps of crustacean arrives in a pungent cold broth topped with fresh betel leaves. These are the same leaves used to wrap unguents in paan; they contribute an elusive astringent flavor redolent of a loamy jungle by the seaside.
While the salad makes a nice shared appetizer, the Hanoi-style skate salad is more of a meal-sized entree. Usually made with catfish, here skate is used instead, with a denser texture and less in the way of muddy flavor. Surprise swatches of pickled cantaloupe tickle the palate, and dill and fennel add further highlights.
Dill and fennel? Indeed, Bolero’s menu is a riot of herbal tastes and smells; Bolero is one of a growing number of Vietnamese restaurants in town to go way beyond Thai basil and cilantro. Some herbs, which sometimes come from Le-Khac’s father’s farm, might be unfamiliar to certain diners, including culantro, a long, saw-tooth leaf; Vietnamese coriander (sometimes called Vietnamese mint), a small, dark, and tapered leaf; and feathery rice paddy herb, along with the aforementioned betel leaf.
Just as the menu emphasizes fresh green herbs, it also plays with fish sauce. In fact, when you order Bolero’s beef pho ($22), the fermented liquid plays an important part in the tableside presentation. One evening after bringing us our bowls of soup the server strode up to the table bearing three bottles of fish sauce, each with different characteristics he described. We picked the funkiest, and he left it on our table so each of us could season our soup as desired.
Contrary to the current fad for Hanoi-style pho, that pho name-checked Saigon. A bowl of herbs and lime wedges appeared on the side, and the broth was sweeter and richer than others I’ve tasted. The beef component consisted of tiny crumbly meatballs, not the bouncy beef balls that often form an option in pho served in America. “When I was in Saigon, I saw cooks coarsely chopping the beef to make pho, and that is what inspired me,” Le-Khac said.
His parents hailed from Hue (pronounced “way”), and a couple of dishes on the 20-item menu are attributed to the central Vietnamese port city and former royal capital. There’s a version of the famous soup bun bo Hue that is rendered in surprising vegan fashion using mushrooms and lots of lemongrass, and very good in a mega-umami way. You probably won’t miss the jiggly pig blood cake found, for example, in the version at nearby High Lua.
Even more surprising among the Hue offerings were banh nam ($5 each), little triangular rice-flour swatches wrapped in banana leaves. They come with a dipping broth that adds honeynut squash to the usual fish broth vinaigrette. The day we tried them, these little parcels were filled with shrimp; on a subsequent occasion a mushroom filling was offered.
One of my favorite dishes once again shows the chef tinkering with traditional recipes, as he did with the skate salad. In con ngheu hap ($18) he exuberantly steams littleneck clams in beer and lemongrass, substituting local bivalves for the crabs usually used in Hanoi street food. The bowl is topped with crumbly salted egg yolk, adding a bright yellow color and sending the flavor in an almost cheese-y direction. And for those who delight in Yankee steamed clams dipped in drawn butter, this showcase mellows their sharp and briny flavor in a whole new way.
Yes, there are cocktails, wines, and beers, but one of the best choices to wet your whistle is the nonalcoholic nuoc ngot ($7), a tall cool glass of limeade soda made with calamansi, a citrus fruit that looks like a miniature lime, and sweetened with sugar cane. It’s a refreshing foil to the flavor explosion of herbs and fish sauce that is Bolero.
Don’t miss Eater NY’s guide to Vietnamese restaurants in NYC.