I can’t stop thinking about the blue crab salad at Mot Hai Ba. A cool, casual-looking toss of sweet crabmeat, thin slices of lime-soaked cucumber and shards of fennel and celery, it gets just the right touch of herbal perfume from Thai basil and a whisper of heat from tiny scarlet rings of Thai chile. Supremes of lime — whole sections of the citrus, that is, meticulously trimmed so the citrus sacs pop in the mouth with exuberant (yet surprisingly gentle) tartness — are the fillip that pulls the composition together brilliantly. The balance is perfect. If you told me we were eating this in a five-star restaurant atop the most expensive hotel in Hanoi, I’d believe you.
But we’re in Old East Dallas, at Colleen O’Hare and Jeana Johnson’s modern Vietnamese place. My friends and I are sitting on cushioned tuffets at a communal table in the tiny space, with the June evening’s golden light streaming in the front window, gorgeously illuminating Peja Krstic’s plates. Since the 31-year-old chef took over the kitchen five months ago, the modest spot has evolved into one of Dallas’ most gastronomically exciting restaurants.
Its salads and appetizers have always delighted; a few of the best have been on the menu since the restaurant opened in the spring of 2013. The banana flower salad is vibrant as ever — impeccably dressed greens, shredded chicken, julienned green papaya and carrot and slices of banana blossom, garnished with toasted peanuts and lots of fried shallot. So is banh xeo tom, a shrimp-filled, shatteringly crisp crêpe. Wrap up a slice of it with Vietnamese herbs in a lettuce leaf, dunk in nuoc mam pha (fish-based dipping sauce) and the flavors take off.
To the lineup, Krstic has added grilled skewered duck hearts, which our excellent server, Aaron Gross, tells us are traditionally eaten in the afternoon. In Vietnam, he says, people use a piece of baguette to slide them off the skewers; here Krstic includes baguette croutons in its salad of herbs, green papaya and mung beans and lime to echo the effect. The silver-dollar-size duck hearts, carefully charred to medium-rare tenderness, play beautifully with the salad; the croutons sop up the delicious juices.
Krstic’s young-green-rice-coated fried shrimp are terrific, too, served on mayo spiked with Thai chile. If any of these sound like something you simply must have, don’t dawdle; the menu changes seasonally, and as we go to press, a new summer menu is on the way in.
In its early days, I loved Mot Hai Ba for its starters, drinks, ambience and pluck, but felt it fell down with main courses, which came across as rote; its pho and desserts disappointed, as did its hard, uncushioned seats. Now there are cushions — and main courses are treated as thoughtfully as the starters.
A thick fillet of barramundi, a delicately flavored, meaty white fish, came bathed in clay-pot caramel and served with gingery rice flecked with black sesame and charred bok choy. Grilled mackerel was served on a spicy coriander sauce with a chunky purée of spiced tomato spooned over. Pointy leaves of rau ram, Vietnamese coriander, added a beguiling perfume, assertive enough to complement the full-flavored fish.
Yes, seafood is a strength, but beef dishes are terrific, too, such as steak wrapped in betel leaf and grilled, then sliced and served on betel leaf juice; or bo kho, tender chunks of anise-scented braised beef in a satiny, savory sauce.
At lunchtime (and at dinner Tuesday through Thursday only), beef shows well in a much-improved pho whose aromatic broth is more refined than soulful — pho sent to finishing school. Thin slices of raw tenderloin that cook slightly in it and luscious brisket are delicious dipped in the house-made hot sauce gracing every table. Its rau song — platter of Vietnamese herbs — has to be the most gorgeous and varied in a 200-mile radius.
There were tiny hiccups now and then: A strikingly beautiful plate of street-style duck breast with a terrific red bean-citrus sauce and curls of grilled eggplant would have been a knockout had the slices not been left quite so rare. Tubes of leek filled with crabmeat and rice on a delicate fish fumet needed more cooking, too, for tenderness’ sake, but the flavor was lovely and the dish, topped with fried shallots, mint and basil, smartly conceived.
The service is part of what makes this place great. So is the all-French wine list, assembled and regularly updated by Gross, who has been there since the restaurant opened — and then some; his tenure in the space goes back to its days as Sharon Hage’s York Street. He and other servers are passionate about the cooking and super-knowledgeable about the ingredients, down to every last herb on the rau song, without seeming the least bit pretentious. They’re happy to share their opinion on a dish, but only if you’re looking for it — an all-too-rare quality.
Speaking of which, I’m going to offer mine on one: the garlic noodles, a $6 side dish. Silky and slippery, the long, flat wheat noodles softly capture the beauty of garlic’s flavor without a hint of harshness — they’re a must-order.
So many details are so right at Mot Hai Ba: The paper umbrellas or plastic jungle animals that decorate the delicious sake cocktails; the fabulous cold-brewed, milky and sweet iced Vietnamese coffee that I’ll be craving all summer; that smart wine list. A crisp, minerally Jacquère from Savoie (2013 Domaine de la Rosière) offered by the glass for $9 is terrific with the Vietnamese flavors; there are well-chosen reds by the glass and a $9 rosé from Chinon, as well. (All these and many more are offered by the bottle.)
And even if they’re less engaging than the savories, the desserts have improved, too, from the sugar-and- star-anise-dusted doughnut holes and bright-flavored sorbets to a coconut and lemon grass panna cotta set off by a quenelle of raspberry sorbet and some crunchy peanut crumble.
As buzzy as it was when it had just opened, O’Hare and Johnson’s little place now somehow feels like an undiscovered gem. And here’s a bonus: Reservations are now accepted. How lovely to know this wonderful spot is there for the enjoying.
Mot Hai Ba
Price: $$$ (lunch starters $5 to $9, main courses and pho $10 to $15, banh mi sandwiches $7 to $11; dinner starters $7 to $16, main courses $16 to $34; desserts $5 to $9)
Service: Warm and friendly, extremely knowledgeable about the menu and passionate about the cooking without being the slightest bit pretentious. Trust these servers - they're tops.
Ambience: The laid-back, chic little (36 seats) dining room has communal tables and seating on low padded stools, plus four seats at a counter. Out front, there's a shaded patio.
Noise level: Pleasantly buzzy, but conversation was not difficult even when it was busy.
Location: 6047 Lewis St., Dallas; 972-638-7468; mothaibadallas.com
Hours: Lunch Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Tuesday-Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Sake cocktails, wine and beer only. A thoughtful, well-chosen, fairly priced list of about 14 white wines, 16 reds and assorted sparklers and rosés, all French - and a couple of Japanese fortified wines - ranges from $32 to $110 per bottle. Eleven are offered by the glass, $8 to $14.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor