It's obvious what Bun Belly, the latest project from Quang Vuong and Kim Thai of Pho Thaison, is going for. The word is stamped all over the menu and signage and website. Welcome to Bun Belly, "a contemporary Vietnamese restaurant." Even the service staff reminded that they do things a little bit differently.
I'm just not wholly convinced that's more than an aspiration. The signifiers are all there, slung around like a thurible, but they barely skim the surface of what a current Vietnamese eatery can be. Being contemporary is about more than dragging sauce on a rectangular white plate or arranging spring rolls with the precision of Maya Lin. It's about being engaged with the present, something Bun Belly really is not. The mismatched salt and pepper shakers on every table? That was a trick from Jean-Pierre's, a winner in the Chronicle's 2000 restaurant poll.
That is certainly not to suggest laziness in the cooking. Leading-edge or traditional, the influence of Vietnamese cuisine on the American palate is difficult to overstate. The balance and purity of Vietnamese cuisine, not to mention the use of color, taught many chefs and food fetishists alike a new vocabulary. And Bun Belly delivers that in pulleys and levers – here there's citrus pop or herbal complexity, there salt, sugar, and spice combine with simple aromatics. When Bun Belly works, it competes with the best cafes in town.
The classics stand out. On a dinner visit, the steamed bun sliders were uniformly excellent. The Beef Belly ($7, two to an order for all buns) and Mekong Belly ($7), though hardly distinguishable from each other in appearance, showed the kitchen's wide range. The bun itself almost floated. The Vietnamese crepe ($8) tatted shrimp and pork into the lacey crisp, adding onions and bean sprouts. The herb selection, integral to the dish, surprised in both its just-picked freshness and variety. I'm not sure if another place in town offers shiso in their mix, but it should be de rigueur.
Other small plates (a bit of an affectation really) worked just as well. The salt and pepper tofu ($14), crowned with slices of jalapeño, came out in pillowy bites. Shaken beef ($13), more commonly seen on menus as shaking beef, might have been too tart without the accompanying rice, but the limey red wine sauce worked as part of the whole. Only the chicken curry ($12) gave us pause. Coconut milk nicely coated the starchy base, and beech mushroom and bok choy added subtlety, but it was all underneath strips of impoverished chicken. Overcooked but overlooked.
That is overlooked until the next visit when our group was greeted by a smell splitting the difference between fish sauce and sewage at the door. The service seemed off too (a manager whose watchful eye made dinner service seamless was missing for lunch) – a bit sluggish and cold. Unfortunately, that torpor came through in the food.
This time we switched to the eponymous Bun Belly slider ($7). The bun part was just as good as the evening prior, but the pork belly was almost sickeningly adipose. Yes of course, pork belly gets its goodness from fat, but Bun's overly paunchy cut was the only thing noticeable about the dish. Both the spring rolls suffered too (both $6). The peanut sauce was fine if not memorable, but the fillings seemed more bagged than picked. A handful were garnished with a plume of browning frisée. It was about as appetizing as Charlie Chaplin's shoe in The Gold Rush.
Classic beef pho ($9) was a little better if missing some anise underpinning. That dish, which comes out with lightning speed at any number of places around town, perplexingly came out a good stretch after the others. We couldn't see anything particularly complicated about the dish, save for the sliced meatballs. (Maybe they cut those with floss?) The spicy calamari salad ($10) and a textbook bánh mì ($8, ordered to-go) raised the bar even further, but that's kind of like saying the Real Housewives of Atlanta rises above Orange County.
The difference between the dinner and lunch was, well, night and day. And when it faltered, the blah atmosphere became impossible to ignore. The bamboo and lotus cliche feels like a late-Nineties Pier 1, contemporized with empty nods toward the concept. Worse, the uncomfortable bench and banquette seating and cramped use of space discourage lingering, even when the local beer selection and quietly innovative saké cocktail menu ask you to stay for one more. It's more than fine to design on a budget (nearby Komé is a great example of what can be done with limited funds), but Austin does not need another dining room decoupaged with the tiny placards of struggling artists.
Let's hope Bun Belly tightens up before they start struggling too.
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