Chef Peja Krstic had planned to open the second location of Mot Hai Ba in March.
We all know why that didn’t happen. Yet another effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, the opening was delayed. But as of this week, the doors have opened (softly, anyway) at the Victory Park spot. Starting Monday, you can go in for the full experience.
As Krstic told the Observer in January, this is not an exact replica of the Mot Hai Ba we know and love in East Dallas. It’s aimed to be the same quality, designed for the Victory Park neighborhood, he said.
The result is a drastically larger dining room with welcoming hues in a clean interior design. The music's different — for one, louder than in the intimate, original location — the vibe is different, but the quality of ingredients and the execution of dishes is unchanged.
Of course, this newly opened restaurant isn’t just new in business, but in the New Normal category of our coronavirus-dominated lives. Employees wear masks, few tables are occupied and the beautiful bar has just a few guests, spaced out. Service ran a little slowly on the second night of soft opening, but that could be either because of COVID-19 (following guidelines for spacing, sanitizing, etc.) or just the fact that it's a brand-new restaurant.
The wine list is larger, going beyond the French focus of the East Dallas spot. Here, you have two full lists of white and red from around the world. Reds from Southeast Europe, Georgia and Lebanon are one reason we’ll return to experience some new wines with guidance from the sommelier.
The cocktail list has options designed specifically for the Victory Park location. The Victory Lap has reposado tequila, Thai chili and mango for a not-messing-around spice and a savory essence somehow. The Red Rooster comes out with layers of red, clear and green with Rhum Agricole, Sochu, lime, bitters and mint.
The food menu seems full — an expectation we didn’t have being in this slightly reopened COVID world we’re in — and the banh xèo is a good place to start.
The Vietnamese rice flour cake is crispy and filled with shiitake, bean sprouts, green onions and your choice of tofu, shrimp or five-spice brisket ($16 with shrimp). A heaping pile of herbs and lettuce comes with it, as well as a proper nuoc cham for dipping. The experience of incorporating the herbs and dipping it in the sauce is messy, but worth the crispy texture and the flavor of properly seasoned and bright ingredients.
The two banh bao buns are filled with the five-spice brisket, Vietnamese kimchi and onions ($17). They’re steamed then pan-fried in leek to get that crispy exterior that so wonderfully melts the whipped kimchi butter you swipe on top of it. (Can we get a cup of that butter to go, chef?) Another plethora of herbs comes with this. There’s no wrong way to go about it. Open up the bun, stuff them in; tear off a bite and wrap it in herbs; do whatever you need to do to complement the savory bun with the bright herbs and experience the flavors together.
Fish and seafood coming out of a Mot Hai Ba is always a safe bet, and the crab and Texas oroblanco salad is a fresh item to share, but can be a small meal on its own ($18). Even better if you want crab, though, are the crab-stuffed leeks ($26).
This dish had the best flavors of the night for our table: Three leeks are filled with Louisiana blue crab, jasmine rice and ginger and baked. The savory cylinders sit on top of an incredible smoked fish bone fume and onion marmalade. It’s not the easiest plate to consume: cutting into the leeks, or biting into them, is difficult, as the vegetable doesn’t want to break and tears off in strands. However, the awkwardness is worth it. A next visit may entail just mixing it all together because that onion marmalade paired with the sweet crab and complemented perfectly well with the texture of rice is something we will never stop craving.
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The Mot Hai Ba kitchen makes good use of the wonderful pork that comes from Chubby Dog Farm. The slow-roasted pork chop will be what we try on the next visit ($36). But the caramel-pork dumplings were classic Krstic with an aesthetically beautiful plate of coconut-caramel-braised pork belly, shallot marmalade, fried shallots, Vietnamese kimchi, chilies and spring onion oil. A glass of the Maris “La Touge” Syrah was lovely with these ($13).
Again, the vibe is different here. If you’re driving from East Dallas expecting the same little, intimate restaurant we’ve grown accustomed to as our neighborhood spot, you may be disappointed. It’s not bad, it’s not lesser than, it’s not more than, it’s just different. And it works.
And when it comes down to it, you’re not tasting the bricks of the different building. You’re sitting in the comfortable chair (far more comfortable than the stools in East Dallas) and experiencing the food of chef Krstic. No matter where you’re doing that, you’re ending your night with a satisfied palate.
Mot Hai Ba, 665 High St. (Victory Park). 469-250-7293. Open for dine-in at limited capacity 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.