When Jeana Johnson and Colleen O’Hare announced they would be turning over the kitchen of Mot Hai Ba to a new and unheard of understudy, panic swirled in East Dallas. They had made a similar move to open that very restaurant, turning over the kitchen of Good 2 Go Taco to tackle an exciting new challenge. They traveled to Vietnam, ate their way through the countryside and came back to open a restaurant the likes of which Dallas had never seen. This time, they hired a new chef so they could work operations at their existing restaurants and maybe do a little consulting. As far as restaurant announcements go, it was kind of boring.
But it’s a common move that ushers in a second phase for restaurants lucky enough to make it through their first years. If a competent chef takes over and buys into the concept, the move can work and the restaurant can remain vibrant. But most of the time, at least in Dallas, the restaurant settles into a sort of culinary stasis instead. Depending on how things were before the transition, that could be fine, but it doesn’t exactly make for exciting new dining experiences.
Regardless of who’s working the pass, Mot Hai Ba has matured nicely as a neighborhood restaurant. The kinks have been worked out and a healthy set of regulars has settled into a dining room that’s established a solid identity. Years ago this address was home to one of Dallas’ most celebrated restaurants, and for a time, any mention of Mot Hai Ba wasn’t complete without a “You know, the place that used to be York Street.” Now any trace of the former restaurant is gone.
Part of the allure is the staff. Somehow, in an industry where employment is a perpetually revolving door, most of the staff working the floor has been there since the restaurant first opened. They’re sharp — quick to smooth out wrinkles and keep the dining room in a constant state of relaxed satiation. They work seamlessly together, and when you walk through the door, you expect their presence as much as you do the upside down lamps hanging from the ceiling and the low-slung, communal tables.
On a recent weekend, customers without reservations filled the dining room faster than the kitchen could keep up. Watches were checked and feet began to tap; some in the dining room wondered if Mot Hai Ba would commandeer their entire evening.
But the staff was unflappable. They talked in Jedi code: “Your dish will be out just when you need it most,” they seemed to say, while admitting the kitchen was under a bit of a crush. Honesty goes a long way to ease tension in a dining room and should be used more often, and it’s even more effective when a wait staff works in perfect concert.
Good food helps, too. When the plates did land on that busy evening, the Jedi spell was lifted, and well-dressed dishes assured everyone the wait was worth it. Chef Peja Krstic wasn’t brought on to blindly execute an existing menu but to take charge and manage it moving forward. He resisted the urge to rework plates that already worked, and supplemented these mainstays with a few of his own.
So if you’ve fallen in love with the banana flower salad, you can rest assured it’s there to brighten your dinner or lunch. Krstic may cut the banana flowers slightly differently and the dressing is now a bit overwhelming at times, but the salad is still lovely and bright. Bits of pulled chicken give you something to chew on, and fried shallots add a savory crunch. Don’t miss the crab salad, either. It’s a shame it’s not available during the day because the jumbo lumps of crabmeat perched on cooling strips of cucumber would make a perfect summer lunch.
Longtime fans can breathe easy knowing that other favorites remain untouched, or only slightly tweaked. The fried egg rolls filled with pork and shrimp, and the massive pancake filled with shrimp and bean sprouts are still very good. Both still come out with a plate piled so high with lettuce leaves and herbs you can make another salad when you’re finished.
Herbs have always been a large component in the dishes at Mot Hai Ba, but Krstic seems to further embrace them. A braised, whole leek dressed in a sweet reduction sauce has been featured as a special. The entire leek is rolled in mustard flowers so fresh they seem alive. Take a bite and you’ll find that familiar pungent flavor lurking in the background. It’s a nice touch.
Seared mackerel makes use of herbs more quietly, in a garnish of Vietnamese cilantro. This version is more pungent and assertive than the tender leaves often mashed with avocado, and it stands up nicely to the oily mackerel, which sports a fresh tomato sauce. Plates like these fit in seamlessly with the shaking beef that’s been on the menu since day one.
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Customers can return to their old favorites, but they shouldn’t do it at the expense of new experiences. How about some grilled duck hearts? They arrive on skewers atop a papaya salad, but don’t stay that way. Your waiter pulls the meat from the bamboo and instructs you to mix everything with your chopsticks. The tiny burnt bits left on the duck hearts from the grill add smoky flavor to the papaya salad, while the vinaigrette cuts the richness of the meat.
The dish leaves a lasting impression. It’s the kind that stimulates office chatter the next day and keeps customers thinking about their meal long after it’s over. Johnson and O’Hare have left the kitchen in capable hands with Krstic, and finding a chef to take the reins has always been the plan according to Johnson. The transition took so long because they held out for what they hope will be the perfect match. And in the meantime, Mot Hai Ba evolved into a dependable and interesting neighborhood restaurant.
Mot Hai Ba
6047 Lewis St., 972-638-7468, mothaibadallas.com, open 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday, $$$
Banana flower salad $8
Crab salad $16
Stuffed leeks $25
Duck hearts $10
Panna cotta $9