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Reviews: Banh Mi Saigon Bakery, Kee's Chocolate

shivohum | Mar 12, 200811:37 AM

Banh Mi Saigon Bakery: One of Manhattan's Great Lunch Deals

Banh Mi Saigon Bakery is a delightful, spare deli-looking Vietnamese restaurant, really more a takeout counter with a few benches nearby, near the corner of Mott and Hester Streets in Chinatown. In a notable bit of space-saving bricolage, the bakery is simply square at the end of a small corridor full of counters displaying jewelry for sale.

The restaurant has only ten options for sandwiches, which are nearly its entire menu. I ordered #6, the Buddhist sandwich, and an ice coffee. The sandwich came big in two thick baguette cuts which were stuffed to the gills with mushrooms, kimchi-style pickled vegetables, and marinated cuts of tofu. Intermingled with it were what tasted like a chili mayonnaise and another, more piquant hot sauce. The cold of vegetables, the spice of the sauces, the warmth of the tofu, the heartiness of the baguette -- this was a world of variety, taste, texture, and all for $4.50 -- a $4.50 sandwich that could serve two for lunch!

This is clearly one of Manhattan's great lunch deals, and a superb sandwich, period.

Kee's Chocolate: An NYC Original, but a Bit Uneven

I visited this chocolatier with a most artist-like in SoHo. The long wide, rectangular room, is broad and mostly emtpy, and seems geared to focus the visitor's attention nearly reverentially at a small cabinet filled with a few varieties of chocolate truffles. I ordered the pistachio and the creme brulee truffles, and also decided to try a fennel macaron.

The pistachio was excellent, both visually and taste-wise. The small ball of white chocolate and nuts was coasted with pistachio bits on the outside, and was smooth, creamy, and, above all, balanced in flavor. Harmonious and fresh, it seemed like a simple and seamless melding of natural and man-made construct.

The creme brulee, apparently the most popular flavor, was a little mixed. I popped the whole thing into my mouth as the nice lady at the counter told me to do -- and as I bit in was rewarded with a gush of a milky, sweet but slightly sour liquid. It went well with the crunch of the chocolate beneath it, but I wasn't sure I liked the brulee filling overall. It reminded me just a little of buttermilk. On the other hand, I can't quite say I disliked it either.

The macaron was another draw. Though the fennel filling was surprisingly tasty, the cookie itself was too chewy for my taste. It didn't melt in my mouth, and eating it a felt a bit too much like work.

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