On the 600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, SE, there’s a storefront that has intrigued me for more than a year. The floor-to-ceiling glass windows have been covered by black plastic from time to time, but they’ve since come down and revealed something like the ruins of Pompey. A tableau of a restaurant, frozen in time. Place settings went untouched. Quality glassware acquired a thick layer of dust. And no one seemed to know just what was happening with Locanda, the refined Italian eatery that closed so suddenly at the end of last May.
All that is about to change for the better, as the cousin team of Khoa and Denise Nguyen prepare to open a new Vietnamese restaurant they’re calling Ba Bay. If those names sound familiar, it’s probably not because you saw them on short-lived cooking competition show Chopping Block last year (few people did, which is why the show was canceled so quickly). But they decided that they enjoyed the experience enough that they would continue the partnership.
I spoke with Denise a few weeks ago and have been trading emails with her since. This weekend, she and Khoa went back to their roots to learn the secrets to some classic family recipes with their mothers – and to put their own spin on a few dishes, as well.
After the jump, some more details about what to expect when Ba Bay opens (and when that might be).According to Denise, Ba Bay is all about their grandmother. Even the name is a nod to her, as it means “Madam Seven” and is the nickname by which she was known within her husband’s family (her husband being the seventh sibling). Her recipes for simple, traditional dishes are the starting point for many of the dishes that will appear on the menu at Ba Bay, though Khoa and another chef will be bringing some new touches to these versions.
Several media outlets that have talked about Ba Bay have described the focus as “street food.” When I asked Denise about this, she pointed out that almost everything can be found (and eaten) on the streets in Vietnam, so it gives them a wide field from which to draw. Expect well-known dishes like pho and banh mi sandwiches, but be prepared for some more complicated plates as well. One such dish was described as a traditional caramelized clay pot chicken reworked to include caramelized chicken, crisped skin and fresh, local oysters.
Emailing me from their visit home, Denise sent a picture of chao tom, a roasted shrimp dish cooked on sugar cane spears. It sounds delicious in and of itself, but Denise and Khoa are expanding on the traditional dish to incorporate lardo, cured pork fat. As Denise put it, their family was “appalled yet excited” by the addition, and the photo she sent along suggests they were pleased with the results.
When Prince of Petworth first broke the news that a restaurant called Ba Bay was in the works in this space, he also complimented the venture on the name of its LLC, Culinary Kung Fu. I asked Denise about it and she informed me that it’s a term she and Khoa have used to describe their cooking style for a while now. They feel that it reflects the blend of tradition and technique that will become their signature.
The Nguyens are shooting for a mid-November opening, taking advantage of the state that the space was left in. They’re planning a facelift for the interior and they envision a 49-seat dining space when they open for business. They’ll do lunch and dinner service, hoping to connect with Capitol Hill staffers and neighbors throughout the day.
The menu is still a work in progress (as is the website, which is little more than a landing page at this point). But they are definitely active on Twitter (@babaydc) and they’ve already got a Facebook page.
Considering the recent history of the space (the short-lived Meyhane was Locanda’s predecessor), we’re hopeful that Madam Seven will be protecting the venture as it gets off the ground. Although she lives in London, she’s expected to pay a visit to advise and critique as the launch gets closer. We’re definitely eager to try some of their dishes, and a place that does even halfway decent pho on Capitol Hill would be a welcome addition as we head into another cold winter.