At the beginning of the year, chef Rob Newton debuted his third Carroll Gardens restaurant — though this latest incarnation reached past his Southern roots and instead went East, all the way to Vietnam. Brooklynites have fawned over Newton’s Dixie flavors at Seersucker and his casual coffee-shop fare at Smith Canteen, but with Nightingale 9, the seasoned New York chef incorporates his love of Vietnamese food with the backbone of his Arkansas heritage. That means when you order a bowl of pho, you might find collard greens, Berkshire pork belly or bacon added to the soup. The result of this unusual fusion is a menu chock-full of comforting, not-quite-conventional dishes with a whole lot of personality. We caught up with Newton to find out more about Nightingale 9’s exciting menu.
When did you decide that Vietnamese food was something you wanted to add to your repertoire?
I have been passionate about Vietnamese food for over a decade, but obviously Seersucker had to be my first restaurant because I am Southern, I love that food and that’s who I am.
When you grow up eating food like that, canning with your family, picking wild greens and catching your own catfish … well, when you go to culinary school and you get turned onto kaffir-lime leaves, lemongrass and coconut, it blows your mind. I had never had that stuff, and it was so different from anything I had ever had in Arkansas or Mississippi. I immediately fell in love with all of those flavors.
How did you educate yourself about this style of food preparation?
I knew I wanted to know more about Asian food, and at the time, Sottha Khun was the chef at Le Cirque. He is Cambodian but French trained. I thought, “That’s a place I want to work.” In culinary school, you have to have an appreciation for French food, and like most people, I respect French technique. But here was Khun messing around with lemongrass, snapper heads and coconut, so I thought it was a place I wanted to be. I was around like-minded people who would say, “Go check out this Cambodian place,” or, “Have you eaten at Noodle Town?” So, that’s how I discovered Vietnamese food, and it was instantly my favorite.
What makes Vietnamese food so special?
It’s very different from Thai, Cambodian or food from Laos. It’s very distinct, it has more fineness, it’s very elegant, seasonal and not as spicy. It’s just an amazing cuisine, and it’s highly underserved in New York.
Seersucker uses a large portion of local and seasonal products. How are you incorporating your sustainable principles into Nightingale 9?
All our beef, chicken, duck and pork come from the Hudson Valley, all from the same purveyors that I know and trust. I get a whole pig now from the same guy every week — half goes here and half goes to Seersucker. I wanted to commit to having things come from as close as possible. Of course, having said that, we do import our fish sauce from Vietnam, and shrimp paste. There are certain things that have to come from Vietnam, but it’s not that many.
How did you meld your Southern roots with Vietnamese food preparation styles?
The way it’s melding is happening organically. I am using ingredients that I love and that are part of my style and the way I cook. It doesn’t mean I am putting passion fruit juice on country ham; that’s a stupid idea. But, if you take country ham and incorporate it into something that makes sense … you know, Southerners love pork and cured meat, and Vietnamese cooking uses a lot of pork and cured meat. Our fried rice has dehydrated ham on top, and it has soybean in it. You see edamame all over Asia, but we call them soybeans here. I get soybeans from the Hudson Valley and put them into the rice. Mustard greens are all over Vietnam, too, and we use mustard greens. Every country in the world loves pig skin; we have cracklings in the South, so that finds its way in to our cuisine here also.
The dish I am doing with catfish, they have been doing for over 100 years. It’s called cha ca, and it’s a turmeric-marinated snakehead fish, which is what they use over there. When I had it in Vietnam, I knew catfish would be the perfect vehicle for it, and we do it just the way they do over there.
It sounds like Southern and Vietnamese cuisines have a lot in common.
Well, that’s not even mentioning crab, shrimp, fish, lake fish, vegetables — people in the South love vegetables, [just like] people in Vietnam love vegetables. If you think about it climatically, they are both positioned near the ocean, and it makes sense that they have connections. If you go deep and look at greens, freshness, seasonality, pork, shrimp and crab, which cuisine am I describing? It could be both.
What are some of your favorite Southern or Vietnamese restaurants in the United States?
I really like Miller Union in Atlanta and Hugh Acheson’s Five and Ten in Athens, Georgia. Also, Capital Hotel in Arkansas is great, and it has a bar that’s old school. I really like it. Vietnamese wise, Slanted Door in San Francisco is awesome.
Photos courtesy of Linnea Covington, Daniel Krieger