It isn’t pretty, this murky brown salad. Take a look at those splinters of green papaya, gnarly rings of fried shallots and clots of air-dried beef. It could be a box of matches spilled in dishwater—certainly too homely for the pages of any respectable food magazine.
But we’re evolved eaters here in New York City, too sophisticated to deny ugly things their fair shake. Taste it and understand the moral of a thousand children’s parables about inner beauty: This funky, crunchy bombshell of compulsive flavor might be the most interesting salad in Kings County.
Like so many things at Nightingale 9, the papaya salad dressing is fortified with nuoc cham, a condiment as ubiquitous in Vietnam as mustard is in Germany. The sauce is a trick chef Robert Newton picked up while traveling through the Southeast Asian country before opening this passion project in February. Bottles of the stuff—made here with fish sauce, lime juice, rice wine vinegar, sugar, garlic and chilies—are in bins on every table, and dashes of it enhance just about everything. Follow its recklessly potent aroma through the menu of street food and noodle bowls, and you can eat very well at Nightingale 9.
A toss of fluke and sweet crabmeat makes for a light on-ramp: The seafood is served in a shallow rice paper bowl with diced cucumber, sparks of Thai bird chilies and drifts of finely shredded coconut. The iconic Hanoi dish cha ca la vong—typically turmeric-blasted fish served with a pickler’s pantry worth of dill—is served as a rice noodle bowl, with sprigs of the herb, crushed peanuts and fingers of fried catfish that might be equally at home at Seersucker, the American Southern restaurant Newton operates nearby. Peanuts and slippery vermicelli noodles also anchor the bun cha bowl, with patties of charred Berkshire pork and curls of belly meat, a chop of scallions and leaves of butter lettuce.
But you want to know about the pho—the Vietnamese noodle soup with restorative powers so mystical that hangovers surrender at first spoonful. Good pho can, of course, be had in Chinatown for a fraction of the price and none of the white-man locavore hauteur. The chicken broth here lacks the musky pitch, but it’s still plenty satisfying. The soup is herbaceous and bright, floating more of those silky rice noodles, chunks of boiled Campanelli’s Farm poultry, crisp bean sprouts and cilantro. Doctor it with a few squirts of hot sauce and you’re on your way.
As for the room, it’s awfully dour, with its institutional tables, dull painted brick and Instagram-unfriendly lighting. It isn’t the sort of place you’d want to linger in, which is just as well: A one-bowl meal ought to be eaten quickly anyway. Stick around long enough to order a dessert popsicle, in clever flavors like Vietnamese coffee and palm sugar caramel.
It’s a bleak setting for such a whimsical treat. But then again, good things needn’t always be beautiful.
Eat this: Green papaya salad, fluke and crab, cha ca la vong, palm sugar caramel popsicle
Drink this: As an annoyingly relentless waitress may remind you, this food deserves a beer. Pints and half-pints of Shiner Bock are a good choice ($4–$6). There are also glasses and carafes of domestic wines ($11–$30). The only mixed drink—an Asian Michelada with fish sauce and halved peanuts floating on top—was one of the more revolting beer cocktails we’ve had.
Conversation piece: The restaurant is named for an archaic Brooklyn phone exchange, NI 9.
By Jordana Rothman