In the year and a half I had been working on my cookbook, I ate out much less than usual. Recipe-testing during the day meant that I always had leftovers for dinner, which piled up in the fridge, and I didn't like food going to waste. When I did eat out, it was usually for big events like friends' birthdays or just grabbing a bite in the neighborhood. This meant that for quite a while, I contributed much less to conversations about new restaurants, chefs, and talked-about dishes than a person in the food biz ought to.
As much as I love cooking at home, dining out has a big appeal. Being inspired by new dishes and new flavors is the biggest reason. I've had fabulous meals recently at Talde in Park Slope and Lotus Blue in Tribeca (opened by my friend Kian of Red Cook); the restaurants both had creative modern takes on Asian cooking and proved you don't have to rely on traditional recipes to serve up great Filipino, Chinese, and other Asian food.
The second biggest draw of dining out for me is nostalgia, for foods I've eaten while traveling abroad. Last night I went to the opening of Pok Pok NY, the New York branch of the popular Portland restaurant, and upon sitting down was immediately reminded of being in a night market in Thailand. Likewise, I was happy to eat lunch at Thanh Da in Sunset Park last weekend because it had been a while since I had a really good Vietnamese meal. (For some reason, good Vietnamese and Mexican food is very had to find in NY.)
For a light lunch, we got spring rolls with little dishes of peanut sauce for each person. I've been to Thanh Da for banh mi before, which are excellent, but that day I was staring at the noodle dishes on the menu and zeroed in on the bun rieu, a crab and tomato noodle soup (the red in the photo up top is tomato, not chili sauce.)
The last time I had bun rieu was in Hanoi, on an insanely hot August day. I had been walking around all day and was tired, grouchy, overheated, and sunburned. I stumbled on a little stand with two women serving bun rieu, sat down on a small stool in the shade, and ordered a bowl. Now, it goes against conventional wisdom that having hot soup on a hot day will help cool you down. But for some reason, just sitting in the shade and savoring the mild noodle soup with juicy tomatoes and mint did a lot to relax me and elevate my mood.
And since then I've associated bun rieu with pleasantness and relaxation. Which was exactly what last weekend was like when I went to Thanh Da. It was spring! The sun was shining, picnic season was beginning, and wow, this noodle soup sure goes well with Vietnamese iced coffee. There were plenty of foods and drinks I could have had to celebrate being done with my cookbook, and bun rieu and iced coffee was a good place to start.
Thanh Da6008 7th Ave (between 60th St & 61st St)Sunset Park, Brooklyn
Other location:Thanh Da II5624 8th Ave (between 56th St & 57th St) Sunset Park, Brooklyn