I don't know what happened at Embeya when co-owner and chef Thai Dang was suddenly and messily locked out by his former partner—one side talked a lot about it and the other not at all, so it's hard to make a fair judgement. I know what I thought about its initial incarnation as a fine-dining, mostly refined Asian spot: it was a civilized place that served some beautiful food in a gorgeous downtown space (by Karen Herold), and in another time it might have been a runaway hit. But by the time it opened the fine-dining crowd had come to accept much more casual settings for refined Asian food made with fine-dining techniques (Yusho, Fat Rice, Parachute). Embeya dressed to the nines a slightly tamed Vietnamese cuisine for business executives just when we'd decided we're OK with funky in flavor and ambience.
On Monday night Thai Dang moved around the room like someone who was happy to have a second chance to make the restaurant he had in his head. The room was Urban Belly—actually, I was at the table that spilled over into the main room of BellyQ, with which it shares the building—and the event was a pop-up for HaiSous, the more casual Vietnamese place that Dang and his wife and beverage director, Danielle Dang, are planning to open. (The former Ms. Pizzutillo was the bartender at Embeya.) About 60 guests were there for a first taste of HaiSous's food; some were restaurant-industry guests—Jake Bickelhaupt and Alexa Welsh of 42 Grams, Sarah Grueneberg and Meg Colleran of the upcoming Monteverde, the irrepressible Ina Pinkney—but many were just restaurant goers eager to see what would be next from Dang.
You hold a pop-up where you can, I'm sure, but Urban Belly was an especially appropriate spot; chef Bill Kim came out of Charlie Trotter's but decided to apply Trotter-level precision to more casual Asian dining, and by the look of the food, that's what Dang—who worked under Laurent Gras at L2O—was doing too. The meal started with dishes on opposite ends of the Asian-food spectrum: snails in a delicate lemongrass sauce and a ginger dipping broth, plainly French-influenced and fairly high-toned, were served at the same time as a bunch of spicy
peanuts cashews with candied pork belly, dumped straight onto wax paper.
Bo tai chanh, gorgeous, thin slices of beef drizzled with a lime-fish sauce and served with rice crackers, was, like the snails, a fine-dining dish—it would be hard to take to go, at least—but it was served with what essentially dim sum, banh cuon nhan thit, a rice noodle studded with bits of pork (I felt it needed a splash of soy sauce or something like dim sum often does).
So is it upscale, casual, or what? The main course was the most everyday of Vietnamese dishes, bun cha ha noi, a broth with hunks of pork belly and pork meatballs, to which we added noodles (from metal pails) and green herbs. This was the HaiSous that I looked forward to the most—a bowl of beautifully made
soup broth with superior meats and an almost penetrating cleanness to the flavors. Not that I don't like funk in Vietnamese food too, but this seemed like the summation of Dang's training under Gras and his own personality. Dessert was likewise simple and direct: condensed-milk yogurt with a spoonful of preserves.
I asked Dang if he had a location yet, and he danced around the question, which made me think he's likely close to signing a lease but couldn't say. Later, though, everyone who attended got an invite to an opening party in July, so he must know he has somewhere to open.
As he went from table to table explaining dishes he seemed happy to be cooking again and happy to have guests—and happy not to be fretting about the past. He pointed out that his host, Bill Kim, was expediting dishes at the pass; Kim no doubt agreed to have the pop-up thinking it would be a slow night, but in fact his dual restaurants, squeezed into one space tonight, were packed, and he was hustling dishes from the pass into servers' hands.
"Think about it—he's running two restaurants in one space. But what can you do? You have to just do it for your customers. Shit happens," Dang said. "Shit happened to me, right?"
Corrections: After a Twitter debate with a friend over whether bun cha ha noi should be souplike, Thai Dang messaged me to say that it's not a soup—"like eating cold udon/soba noodles. The broth is there for the noodles, herbs, pickled papaya & chili [to be eaten out of]." Also the Dangs already knew each other at Embeya, and if I'd looked at my own photos, I'd have remembered those were cashews, not peanuts.