Spike Nguyen's seven-week-old midtown restaurant, iPho Tower, might become like New York City's elegant French-Vietnamese Le Colonial when it grows up. Right now, it's more like something out of the film Saigon Electric: flashy and wildly colored, tuned to a soundtrack that veers from Rosemary Clooney to gospel to sultry house music, depending on the time of day.
The shifting personalities on view at iPho Tower, which gets progressively louder and more seductive the later the hour, is one reason that this offbeat venue is already an appealing place to order food after midnight. Chubby's, just up the street, has never seemed more boring.
The midtown faithful will recall that this address used to house Chubby's, back in the 1980s. Following a rainbow coalition of well-intentioned but short-lived restaurants that attempted such unlikely flavors as Pakistani food and Caribbean cuisine, Nguyen has taken the space and spent a small fortune gutting it. The long, narrow storefront looks, for the first time in ages, stylish — at least if your idea of style runs to the theatrical. There's barely an inch of space that hasn't been given a self-consciously eye-catching detail: paper lanterns here, a gilded Buddha there. The idea, says Vietnamese-born Nguyen, is for patrons to walk in and feel right away that they've left Kansas City.
It's a fine ambition, and he has executed it with some success. Pass through these portals, and you set aside this grimy stretch of midtown, in favor of ... well, where are we?
This might be Paris, if Paris were very small and lacked building codes. There's a 3-foot wire structure — I'd call it Eiffel Tower–ish — on the bar, next to a laughing-Buddha statue. The two together suggest the supposed Gallic influence on a kitchen that makes excellent traditional Vietnamese dishes (steaming pho bowls, banh mi sandwiches) and a few "fusion" creations. The latter nod halfheartedly toward the French sensibilities that dominated cultural life in Vietnam's larger cities from 1887 to 1954. Some of the dishes listed under the heading "Vietnamese/French Fusion" are tasty but not foolproof. The "fusion beef stew" has a silky sauce flavored with star anise and cloves, but you have to check with the servers before you commit. If the kitchen has just made a pot of the stuff, the beef is likely to be tough; if it has been simmering for a couple of hours, it's nirvana.
A simple slab of salmon comes perfectly grilled and lightly glazed with the same sweet sauce, a strawberry-and-ginger concoction, that Nguyen serves with his steamed dumplings. It tastes like neither strawberry nor ginger; instead, it's a vaguely fruity, garlicky stir-fry sauce, likable but indistinct.
That sums up iPho Tower in its infancy — the place is more signifiers than identity. There are, for instance, no fewer than three versions of the amber-colored, fish-based dipping sauce called nuoc mam. A slightly sweet variation arrives with the divinely crunchy, fried shrimp rolls and the lightly breaded fritters of sweet potato and shrimp (a little skimpy on the crustaceans); there's also a "regular" portion meant to be poured over the rice plates and the vermicelli dishes. And if you ask for it, your server will bring out a third nuoc mam, this one punched up with chili flakes. It's a little tart at first bite, then punishingly hot all the way down the gullet.
Oh, but it's a fine hurt. I especially like that third sauce with one of the seven banh mi sandwiches served here. True to this restaurant's hodgepodge approach, though, none come on a true French baguette, though the bread is close enough to the real thing for me. Among these, I like the "house special," with its slices of grilled pork, beef and Vietnamese meatloaf tucked into the bread's crusty depths. That may sound like a lot of meat, but the sandwiches I tried were a little thin on fillings.
Fortunately, that's not the case with most of the other offerings on iPho Tower's menu. Still, Nguyen needs to either raise his prices or grit his teeth and add a little more meat to the otherwise first-rate "shaken beef" dish, a tender beef-and-onion combination in a dark, spicy sauce. The costliest dish on the menu, a peppery grilled rib-eye, is a magnificently seasoned hunk of meat and a properly hefty portion. It might be the best steak to hit this stretch of Broadway since the original Colony Steakhouse decamped from here in the 1960s.
The appetizer selection is the longest list on the menu — understandable for a restaurant that does a brisk witching-hour business. The concert-going crowd at the Uptown Theater, across the street, has already discovered the place, and I think Westport drinkers will, too. The fried wings here — not breaded but crispy enough — come in a bittersweet tamarind glaze, and the plump, grilled pork roll is almost satisfying enough to make a meal. The squares of fried tofu are pillowy-light under an almost invisible crust, and the pretty little baked pork buns, stuffed with a savory pork barbecue, are delicious. The Vietnamese crepes, more of those "fusion" creations, slips smartly seasoned grilled pork and shrimp inside a crispy flapjack, colored yellow from turmeric. Trust me, it's just the ticket at 1 a.m.
Another crepe — a soft, sweet one — is for now the sole dessert offering at iPho Tower. It's a disturbingly neon-green affair, filled with coconut-flavored cream cheese and strawberry purée.
"Where's the crème brûlée?" I asked Nguyen. "Where are the éclairs?"
"We will have crème brûlée," Nguyen said. "We're experimenting with other desserts right now. Everything takes time, you know."
Right now, Nguyen is juggling the Broadway iPho Tower and the construction of a second location, soon to open in the space formerly occupied by his Pho Hoa restaurant on Independence Avenue. (It will serve the same menu as the midtown venue.)
"When I get the Independence Avenue restaurant open," Nguyen told me, "my focus will be completely on my menu. We'll have more desserts — French-style desserts."