Bright neon green curtains enhance the comfortable new space for Ha Long Bay Bistro, previously occupied by Bab's French Quarter Kitchen. Bamboo pagoda lamps, rice paddy hats and nautical and floral images create a pleasing visual flow. Tiny bamboo plants in faux-jade baby elephant planters rest on each table. Cuisine is derived from Vietnamese, Thai and Laotian recipes.
I like to begin this kind of meal with a spring roll. The style here is sometimes called a summer roll: not deep-fried, and almost like a salad wrap. Moistened rice paper enfolds a winningly proportioned blend of carrots, lettuce, bean sprouts, tofu, mint, shrimp and flecks of seasoned pork. Dipping the roll in Ha Long Bay's rice wine vinegar sauce with slivers of hot pepper and tiny chunks of peanut gives the experience additional zing.
For more dipping, there's a bottle of chili paste, plum sauce and Sriracha hot sauce on each table. Prices are low for generously proportioned plates anyway, so why not experiment?
Thai cuisine is well represented by both a green curry - bright and hot oil intertwining with sticky rice - and the Triple Delight with pork, shrimp, chicken, pineapple, squash and zucchini in a mild, subtle, complex sauce.
In Vietnamese cuisine, a tureen of quality pho is the critical benchmark. Here, Ha Long Bay really makes good. Thinly shaved beef is perched atop a tower of noodles in an intoxicating broth of white and green onions. Freshly cut limes, jalapeños and raw bean sprouts are provided on the side to accent your soup to taste; a squeeze of lime is transformative.
Sai Oua is a Laotian-style sausage stuffed with herbed ground pork. Slices are fanned out over steamed broccoli, green beans and carrots. This turned into the plate that everyone wanted to snack from, so don't order it if you are feeling selfish. Still, one of our party complained it was too dry, even when dipped into the salsa-like spicy tomato dip.
If the giant menu has you feeling flummoxed (it is too long and confusing), the Ha Long Bay specials menu, when available, provides accessible hits. Xao Dau Xanh, a green and yellow bean salad with chicken, is excellent, with subtle peanut undertones grounding the dish in a nutty herbal flavor offset by the snap of green beans. Xao Lac is a peanut stir-fry with refreshingly crisp bell pepper, asparagus, onion and carrot. Try this one with tofu (most dishes have the option of ordering with beef, pork, chicken or tofu).
There are some misfires. Spicy "Dynamite" scallops are a concession in exactly the same way that a "New York" sushi roll is; mayonnaise and cream cheese are not actually used much in Eastern cuisines.
Crisp Singha Thai Beer and #33 Vietnamese beer, light and sweet, are both available and are nice complements. The service was understaffed but acceptable for both our visits. Interviews with locals suggest that despite general excitement over the restaurant, there continue to be issues with takeout orders gone awry. If you've ordered tofu, it is not okay to discover chicken after you are already at home. And one hour is too long to wait for takeout in Madison.
Prices are right for the neighborhood, the location is right for the food, and the food is good. If the initial wobbliness subsides and Ha Long Bay can get the wheels on straight, they should be in for a good ride - so long as we can continue to get that good pho.