Restaurant BT owner/chef BT Nguyen has had a hell of a year. Last April, the restaurant in Tampa's Hyde Park Village — which she owns with former husband Norman Batley — filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in order to find relief from a backlog of unpaid rent. The 200-seat Hyde Park space was big, beautiful and damn expensive at more than $14,000 a month, and the slack economy played havoc with the restaurant's income.
Jumping ahead almost a year, we find Nguyen's restaurant in a new, downsized location on South MacDill. The reborn Restaurant BT has a more casual look and more intimate vibe than the old spot, but the food is the same fine French-Vietnamese cuisine that made Nguyen so popular in the first place.
Nguyen has made some changes to the menu, but most of the favorites are still there: fresh rolls and bo tai chanh, duck pancakes and foie gras, pumpkin soup and shaken beef, among many others. In fact, the menu seems surprisingly large for such a small place, until you dig deeper and realize how she uses the same main ingredients in a variety of strikingly different ways, like duck in that pancake, on a salad, and as a seared breast entree.
Filet mignon gets the same treatment, but the dishes are so very different you can order them all in one sitting without feeling an ounce of boredom. Start with the bo tai chanh, a take on steak tartare that's packed with simple Vietnamese ingredients like peanuts, basil, cilantro, garlic, lime and chilies. With such a powerful group of flavors, the meat could easily be shoved into the backseat, but it shines through the strong heat, bright acidity and fragrant herbs.
In her take on beef stroganoff, Nguyen transforms that same cut of beef into something distinctly modern, elegant and very Western. The hunk of ideally seared and seasoned filet is glazed with a salty red wine reduction that brings tremendous flavor to the mild beef, with enough juice to spare for the strands of tender fresh pasta studded with mushrooms underneath the meat. It's traditional steak and starch — and decidedly beef stroganoff — made simply and beautifully, requiring a huge amount of effort in the kitchen without the need to show much fuss on the plate.
Nguyen's Vietnamese bouillabaisse is almost the polar opposite. Like the stroganoff, this is a take on a classic dish. Unlike the stroganoff, this doesn't do justice to the inspiration. The bowl is crowded with chunks of pineapple, sliced okra and tomatoes, the broth hidden under layers of ingredients. Get to it and you find a simple and subtly sweet soup that fails to bring the calamari, shrimp, salmon and veggies together in any meaningful way.
That's a shame, because Nguyen can make a damn fine bowl of soup. Her mushroom and shrimp puff soup is built on a rich but delicate broth that meshes seamlessly with the tender fungi and pillowy shrimp. Her mastery of 'shrooms is never more obvious than in a napoleon of roasted shitakes, eggplant and crab meat. The eggplant serves as a vehicle for the incredible, earthy mushrooms, with bits of crab appearing almost as a seasoning. It's a stellar dish.
Nguyen can do rustic when she wants to, as in a green papaya and duck salad that is crunchy, powerful and more country than rock 'n' roll, or in veggie samosas that are redolent with Inidan spices. When she tries to blend the elegant with the rustic, however, she sometimes misses the mark.
Except, that is, in the feel of the restaurant itself. She was always a presence in her dining rooms, but here she's on the floor whenever she can escape the kitchen, delivering food and cleaning tables, chatting up the guests. And her kids — whom some of the menu items are named after — are in the house too, seating guests or biding time at the bar with a Nintendo DS.
The atmosphere of the dining room is elegant enough, but the IKEA decor gives it an approachable and comfortable vibe. There's even a cozy outdoor space off to the side. I could do without the clear plastic chairs in the dining room — obviously not built for more portly gentlemen — but discomfort is quickly forgotten once Nguyen's excellent food hits the table.
Restaurant BT seems to have grown into its new, leaner situation, the surroundings more welcoming and the food better than ever. For Nguyen's fans, last year's cloud hid a thick silver lining.