It's pretty fascinating to ponder what drives "a scene" in New York. When a well-known, favorite chef decides to open a new outpost with a slightly different concept, there is most certainly a buzz in the air. As soon as a chef or owner breaks away from a thriving restaurant to start his or her own venture, New Yorkers are ready to pounce. Or even when a favorite restaurant closes down, diners eagerly anticipate what will open up in the coveted space. But, what I find most fascinating is the power of the unmarked door. Whether or not a restaurant falls into any of the previously mentioned categories, an unmarked door will automatically attract a crowd. Throw a prime West Village location in there and you've got yourself a scene.
In all honesty, I'm usually turned off by places that go out of their way to actually create a scene - typically the reason doors go unmarked. And when I read that Betel, the new upscale Thai restaurant in the West Village, had fallen prey to the unmarked door, I was a little disappointed. Nevertheless, scenes will always spark my curiosity - especially when they are so close to home - and I at least wanted to be the one to judge. Now, the big question is - is an unmarked door still an unmarked door when you walk by it and the man in front of it asks if you are looking for Betel? This inviting gesture immediately set Betel in an unmarked door category of it's own. It's amazing how far manners will take you. I like to think that Betel, instead of trying to be exclusive, is actually trying to be more personal - have a human welcome you, rather than a heartless sign.
There is still no denying that Betel is a scene right now so just be prepared for it. But, I just want to remind you that is not always a bad thing. I will take a welcoming scene any day over places that deny you even when calling exactly one month in advance at 9:01 am (Minetta Tavern...ahem). There is no secret code or phone line to make it through these unmarked doors. If you get there before or even during the rush as we were lucky enough to, you may even be seated right away. If not, you may have to wait a bit, but only while enjoying a fancy cocktail at their very comfortable, large bar. The communal table that takes up the middle of the restaurant is yet another gesture that encourages mixing and mingling so don't be shy if you end up dining with a few strangers. Even though this place is all about the sharing, the space is all that you will have to share with them.
With such a buzz in the air, there was certainly pressure for the food to meet my immediately raised expectations. The chef's use of exotic Southeast Asian ingredients kept the bar high. I recommend starting with the betel leaves, their signature appetizer. These are fresh, light, and crisp - and served one to an order. The smoked sea trout option prepared with trout, roe, shrimp, galangal and chili was a great combination of flavors and had a nice kick to it. I also recommend the pork and scallop cilantro dumplings with chili-garlic dipping oil as well as the salt and pepper cuttlefish with Vietnamese dipping sauce which can be served as a starter or a main. Order up a side of the broccolini with oyster sauce and ginger and you will be amazed by how something so green can be so full of flavor. While the stir fried tuna with chili jam, snake bean, cashew nut, Chinese broccoli, and Thai basil was underwhelming compared to the rest of the dishes we ordered, this was still a cut above any seafood order in a standard Thai restaurant. Both the Wagyu beef brisket and farmed chicken were delicious examples of the chef's ability to excel in both Vietnamese and Thai cuisine. The Vietnamese brisket is braised and prepared with long leaf cilantro, Vietnamese mint, and chili lime dressing. And the chicken is a southern curry with butternut squash, fried shallots, and Thai basil. Both dishes pop with the right amount of flavor and spice - and a nice balance of meat and vegetables.
While the crowds are not dying down any time soon at Betel, a meal here is still very probable. This really is the best kind of scene - one where you can enjoy exotic cocktails, where you can feast on delicious cuisine, and where you can get the door pointed out, opened, and even held for you. And when the crowds do start to die down, the excellent setting and food will still be right there with you.
51 Grove St.
New York, NY 10014