Thursday, November 19, 2020

A visit to Van Da on 4th Street

Text and photos by Stacie Joy

There is something magical watching a close-knit team work together to create something. 

In that light, I was pleased to arrive early enough at the elegant and modern Vietnamese restaurant Van Da, 234 E. Fourth St. between Avenue A and Avenue B, to watch the chefs prepare, taste, and perfect the day’s special, tôm rim shrimp. It’s a seafood dish cooked over high heat with caramelized fish sauce, peppers and toasted cashews, all served over broken rice, which executive chef Mary Celine Bui calls “tortured rice” due to the process that it undergoes to become “broken.” 

The dish is tasted by all staff members and discussed (chef Jay Bui, Mary’s husband and partner in the kitchen, offers to add some green onions), and notes are jotted down to inform diners about the special, before the chefs make a new batch with modifications under the watchful eye of owner Yen Ngo. 

Yen, Mary and Jay go through several iterations of the plate before Yen is satisfied that it is ready for her customers.

Away from the kitchen, bartender Andrew Pisano gets his station in order and begins to prep the cocktail specialty ingredients (Thai basil, bird-chili–infused mezcal, passionfruit) necessary to complement the food menu.
Meanwhile, diners start to arrive, so I settle in to talk with Yen about what it’s like to keep a neighborhood restaurant going during a global pandemic, the challenges of balancing labor, food and supply costs, and what her plans are going forward.
Your restaurant opened last year to critical acclaim (per the Times and Eater), yet you consider the space an approachable neighborhood local. What has the neighborhood’s response been?

We feel so fortunate to have such amazing writeups and to be recognized by the Michelin. It’s such an honor. Restaurant businesses are so hard, we love this kind of recognition plus the reviews of our guests.

I live in the East Village so I understand both what the neighborhood offers and lacks in term of restaurants. There is definitely a lack of Vietnamese restaurants that offer an interesting and authentic menu, but which also offer beautiful aesthetic atmosphere and great service. 

With that said, we keep our prices very competitive with other neighborhood restaurants. Our appetizers start at $7 and noodle entree at $15. Our neighbors love us and have been back regularly. Many have told us that we are their hidden gem. 
What has been the biggest challenge for you since the city approved outdoor dining back in the summer?
There are so many challenges…including creating and spending money on a completely new type of setting. It’s hard to spend the money, not knowing if you can get it back. We are at the mercy of the weather. When it rains, you’ve suddenly lost 50 percent of your reservations.
It’s extremely hard to break even on the small numbers of tables that we have for outdoor seating. Our food is so complicated that we still need the same number of kitchen staff if we do 90 guests or if we do 20 guests. There is no way to cut them, so therefore out labor cost is 50 percent of sale.
What is your biggest concern as we head into winter? Is 25 percent indoor dining along with some outdoor space sustainable? 

This is definitely the biggest challenge. It’s hard for people to eat outside in the cold. However, I agree that we need to keep everyone safe. 

As a business owner, I want to be able to survive but I also want what best for everyone, so it’s tough to navigate the steps on indoor dinning.

Your dining hours are limited, with the restaurant closed on Sundays and Mondays, and not open for lunch. What prompted these decisions?
We are located on a charming but very quiet street. It’s impossible for us to open for lunch and break even with the food and staff cost. If we were on Avenue B, that might work, but I am not sure if that is true either. We have tried to open Sundays but it was not successful. People love to eat Sunday brunch and comfort food, rather than exotic food. The truth is labor cost is so high that you can lose much more if you open on quiet days.
You always have a good soundtrack playing in the background. What do you think is the key to a pleasing restaurant ambiance?
We are in a dense neighborhood, it’s so important for us to make sure the people who live nearby are not constantly bother by loud music and worse — bad music. As a diner, I also am completely turned off by terrible and loud music so that you have to scream to be heard. 

Normally, I ask business owners about what’s next for them, what their plans are going forward.  Knowing that we don’t know a lot about how the pandemic and its surrounding issues will play out, what are your thoughts on the restaurant industry as we look toward next year? 

Wow, this is a tough one to answer. I am very worried about the restaurant industry altogether. There are already so many closures and will be many more the next few months. In January and February of 2020, we were doing extremely well and thought that we are going to make it and become a neighborhood destination. 

But, of course, with the pandemic and now winter coming, it’s very scary. Our landlord is really nice, though, and has reached out to see how he can help us hang in there for the next four or five months. So, if we can keep the losses to a minimum and make it until April 2021, we might be OK.  
In the meantime, we can work on increasing our carry-out business, as that will be the only safe way for guest to enjoy our food without worrying too much about eating inside.
You can keep up with the restaurant on Instagram. For reservations call 917.994.4781 or email


Anonymous said...

wow, wonderful article and pix, i cannot WAIT to eat here!

MrNiceGuy said...

If you haven't been to Van Da, you really owe it to yourself to go. The food is always bright and interesting and just plain delicious. The staff is welcoming and just feel like part of the neighborhood. And that Shaking Beef... SO GOOD!

Great article Stacie!

Sarah said...

Looks delicious! I'm going to have to get takeout from this place.

Brittany S. said...

Thank you for highlighting this local gem! I had never heard of it and will definitely be checking it out now.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe I've never heard of this place...can't wait to try it! Thanks for the tip!

Anonymous said...

Vietnamese food is awesome. So fresh and flavorful. The owner seems lovely and smart too. I hope she can continue to stay. I spent over fifteen years in the trenches of NYC restaurants. It's a very tough, often unforgiving and fickle industry. I will have to spread some neighborhood love and order take out :)