Vietnamese restaurants in New York tend to fall into two categories: those with atmosphere (and its incumbent sexy lighting, pricey cocktails, and questionable fusion tendencies) and those glaringly, plate-clatteringly without. It’s that sparsely populated middle ground, balanced precariously between flash and Formica, that Vinh Nguyen hopes to occupy with his new Williamsburg restaurant, Silent H. The name is a reference to the unpronounced consonant in so many Vietnamese words, including Vinh, and it’s an assertion of ethnic identity as understated and personal as the restaurant’s modest, rough-hewn décor.
A first-generation Vietnamese-American, Nguyen grew up in Southern California, where he stumbled into the restaurant business as a barback at Santa Monica’s Father’s Office. It was there that he learned the value of a small, well-honed menu and the right kind of low-key atmosphere, one he’s sought to foster at Silent H. With its blocky, sliding-back chairs and NBA-height bar stools, Silent H feels like a lovingly crafted low-budget indie project in a city full of soulless major Pan-Asian releases. The young, attentive staff and eclectic soundtrack evoke the idiosyncratic vibe of a Fatty Crab or a Momofuku, and so does the expression of a singular vision. Nguyen, rail-thin and usually dressed in a dishwasher’s shirt and a Radar O’Reilly cap, is everywhere you look, not only delivering plates from the kitchen but picking stray lettuce leaves off the floor, lurking outside to smoke a cigarette, and hobnobbing with friends in the back booth.
In reaction to the diffuse kitchen-sink menus at most Vietnamese restaurants, Nguyen has kept his small and focused. Because pho is so widely available, Nguyen won’t serve it, and he restricts his roster of bánh mì, the increasingly popular Vietnamese sandwich, to the counter-service “street shop” lunch menu (his bread comes from a Polish bakery around the corner). Which isn’t to say that fans of the delicate, fish-sauce-seasoned cuisine won’t find anything familiar to eat. The summer rolls are textbook, with diaphanous wrappers and ultrafresh fillings; Nguyen’s mother was assembling them herself one sunny Sunday afternoon. Most of the other appetizers are fried, with varying results, from fine (if a tad bland) spring rolls to arancini-like shrimp cakes made with broken rice and showered with grated lemongrass. Most appealing was Nguyen’s own invention, bruschetta-like toasts topped with a smooth, tasty rice-flour-tapioca-starch batter mixed with mung bean and taro, studded with a choice of tiny shrimp or mushrooms, and then placed under the broiler until golden brown. Highly addictive—especially when dipped into Nguyen’s tangy nuoc cham, and a good counterpoint to the other standout appetizer, thin slices of marinated beef served with a fiery dipping sauce.
For all his no-substitutions bluster, Nguyen is surprisingly accommodating to neighborhood vegetarians, who must be legion. Of the five entrées, three are available meatless, and the fourth is a fish dish. When sparklingly fresh, the pan-fried sole is peerless—two tender fillets draped over rice and topped with fried okra and sautéed spinach. Its ginger-scallion-soy sauce is almost good enough to redeem the seafood’s slightly over-the-hill flavor the second time we sampled it. There is something hearty and comforting about Nguyen’s dishes, especially the excellent caramelized pork chop served on a mound of broken rice with hard-cooked egg and cucumber. The chef plasters the chop with black peppercorns that act as a tasty foil to the slightly sweet pan juices and drippings drizzled on top. And the famous Vietnamese crêpe, bánh xeo, is delicate and lacy, stuffed with shrimp and pork belly and served with a creamy coconut sauce.
Once his liquor license arrives, Nguyen will surely put his bartending background to good use, but for now, there’s tangy limeade, exotic teas and fruit shakes, and sweet Vietnamese coffee, which has all the sugar and twice the kick of tropical desserts like mung-bean congee and litchi ice cream. On the way out, pick up something from the mini-market Nguyen built by the door. The imported jars and bottles make for a homey, kitchen-cabinet effect, and the perfect atmosphere, in our book.