Mot Hai Ba, an East Dallas Staple, Is Slowly Being Made Over, and It's Working

Scott Reitz
Not bad for a tenderloin.
Chef Peja Krstic has been asserting his creativity since taking over the kitchen at Mot Hai Ba. After the owners, Jeana Johnson and Colleen O'Hare, ceded control, the Serbian-born chef added grilled duck hearts, grilled mackerel and other adventurous ingredients to the menu. He's taken herb usage and edible flowers to the next level, moving them beyond embellishments for egg rolls and crepes. Far from leaving things in the kitchen alone, Krstic is making his mark on this East Dallas Vietnamese restaurant.

Don't worry, the banana flower salad remains, mostly unchanged. But the new additions really breath life into the place. Last week I had a whole leek, braised till it was tender and served under a blanket of fresh-from-the-garden mustard flowers. The yellow blossoms brought color, texture and a subtle brightness to the plate.

The mackerel was showy, too. Grilled up with a tomato sauce and plated with cilantro that had been turned into a puddle, the fish was a welcome change to the menu. The beef tenderloin, too: I have a hard time getting excited for tenderloin -- it just doesn't have the flavor of the beefy, chewy cuts I prefer -- but I'd order this one again.

The plate was presented with that large betel leaf that's been pushed off to the side, perched on top of the beef. Remember the paan that almost killed my friends in Irving? In India, betel leaves are often filled sugary fruits and spices and served as an after diner digestif. Krstic juices these leaves for a quietly vegetal finish. That cabbage is given a wicked char on the grill, lending smoky aromas that tie together the entire plate. It's simple, and it's good.

And while the betel leaf tenderloin was just a special when I dined here, my waiter said it would be added to the menu permanently soon. Krstic is also experimenting with different cuts and should feature something with a bit more oomph soon.

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