I’m not sure what I think about this news. On one hand, Bardo’s unfinished-industrial ethic with its concrete floors and boxy, incoherent layout really could use a hand in the feng shui department. On the other, its strange collision of failing-nightclub and hip-restaurant vibes is a pretty good metaphor for the restaurant itself, as in a fusion of things that kinda, sorta works.
Eating at Bardo is, in a word, fun. The small plates served up by the kitchen exhibit equal parts whimsy and culinary skill along with a heavy dose of “to hell with the rules” attitude. It works – for the most part, anyway. The menu consists of 80-plus small dishes loosely based on an east-meets-west theme. The bar offers more than 35 specialty cocktails, a very long list of liquors (if I recall, they had something like 35 different vodkas on hand), and perhaps one of the most far-flung and incongruous wine lists in the area ($650 bottles of wine? In Norfolk, Virginia? Really?). Most of the bottles of wine are in the $30s and $40s, but pairing wine with a table’s worth of small plates is its own challenge. What this all means to you is that this is not the kind of place for those suffering decision-making disorder. It also means that there will come a point where wading through the menu becomes more like studying for a final exam and less like a fun night out.
What is always fun, however, is the food itself, even if the dishes’ concepts can seem just a little off. Take, for example, the Kobe beef carpaccio. The purported Kobe beef – the beef of all beef – arrives on a long, white plate sliced into bright-red, paper-thin coins, drizzled with chili and truffle oils and sprinkled with crunchy salt crystals and rough-ground pepper corns. It also comes with a small cooker shooting blue flames around a stone, upon which you can cook the meat. It looks great. It tastes great. But the whole point of carpaccio is that it’s raw. There is no cooking in carpaccio. There is also no drizzling of chili or truffle anything on the prized and stupidly expensive Kobe beef (of course, I don’t believe for a second that Bardo is actually serving Kobe beef – my money is I’m eating the less-expensive and easier-to-obtain domestic Wagyu beef). But, if you set all that aside, the beef is really tasty … even after cooking it on the stone, which is really pretty cool.
The chefs at Bardo have attained a real zen when it comes to flavors, and judging by their extensive menu (plus specials), they are intent on you getting to try all of them. They take edamame, the highly addictive Japanese appetizer of steamed and salted soybeans, rename them “Zenamame,” and create nine different versions. Their Sichuan style soybeans are stir-fried in butter, ginger, five spice, kala namak (a black salt usually more at home in Indian dishes) and orange. It pretty much takes a 12-step program to stop eating these things. Taking the lowly soybean to an even higher plane, Bardo does this wicked hummus duo thing in which they give you one dollop of bright-red roasted red pepper hummus nestled yin-and-yang like against a scoop of bright green edamame-and-truffle-oil hummus. It tastes even better than it looks.
The lobster stuffed deviled eggs are a fun Tokyo-by-way-of-Alabama dish that is beautifully arranged on ribbons of spinach and topped with translucent green tobiko (wasabi-infused flying fish eggs). Asian chili sauce gives the deviled yolk mixture a healthy kick and the salty tobiko adds a subtle but nice textural element. As for the lobster? Well, the richness of the egg yolk combined with the chili sauce effectively eradicates any sort of lobster
flavor there might have ever been in the eggs. Equally pretty to look at is the black and white sesame seared tuna, which has all sorts of crunch to it on account of the literal crust of sesame seeds packed onto it. The sesame itself gave the tuna a rich, earthy flavor, but the real star was the blood orange vinaigrette that brought the whole dish to life. It’s a crunchy, meaty, fruity, tropical Asian concoction that makes me think of surfside dining on Pacific islands. A definite keeper.
The calamari fried in Sapporo beer batter was perfectly done. The batter gives the squid a fluffy and crisp onion-ring-like coating, while the calamari itself is super tender. Too many restaurants manage to bungle calamari, and it ends up being tough and rubbery – Bardo expertly avoids that pitfall and ups the ante with its off-the-charts “kaffir lime tartar” dipping sauce. The tartar is light and creamy, and the capers in it give it a pleasing sharpness. It’s almost an injustice to call it “tartar,” which evokes bad memories of Fishwich topping.
Besides the food, I like the fact that it never seems like Bardo takes itself too seriously. The menu is peppered with witticisms and possibly an inside joke or two (for example, the Lao Tzu’s Chapter 11 cocktail – which is free – is described thusly: “You may not order this drink. It will find its way to you when you are ready to accept it…”), and the website humorously notes, “You’ve probably thought about opening your own restaurant at some point. These guys actually did it. Check out their bios to confirm their insanity.” Therein, we learn the “head booze pusher” opened Taphouse and has been labeled “Scotch Nazi” among “a few other choice phrases.” The “off-site owner” (?) was once the executive chef at Ghent’s Crackers (part of the Little Bar Bistro mini-chain that includes the awesome Six). His bio also notes that he likes to shoot pool in addition to “standing on his feet all day taking inane requests from our ‘cherished’ customers.” The “head paper pusher,” meanwhile, “spends his days torturing vendors and correcting staff. While some claim that he is really a nice guy once you get to know him, most beg to differ.” It’s refreshing to eat at places where you believe the proprietors actually enjoy what they’re doing.
Unfortunately, Bardo does blunder on occasion, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s due to the sheer breadth of their menu. After all, there really is (or should be) a finite limit of different things the kitchen can turn out on a given night. My main case in point is their pork belly, which takes a bit of work to do right. Bardo’s Asian pork belly is braised in sake and garlic and advertised as being served over micro greens. When I ordered it, however, I received four slices of the pork belly on top of four slices of the “French bread” you get in grocery stores – you know, the dense, soft-crusted stuff (there was also no green anything in sight). A good portion of pork belly is pure fat. Very moist, very tasty fat, but fat nonetheless. Typically, pork belly is prepared in a two-step cooking process where the whole cut of meat is cooked at a low temperature (often roasted in an oven, braised or cooked sous vide) and then hit with high heat (either a broiler or a skillet) in order to give it a good, crisp crust to play off the soft meat and gelatinous fat. Unfortunately, Bardo’s pork belly, while very flavorful, had no crust, so it was just a super-soft mouthful of fat and slow-cooked pork. The dish practically screamed for some sort of crunch to it, but the slices of bread under the meat were taken off the grill long before they ever toasted, so they just added to the mushiness of it all. Bardo should go back to the drawing board with this one.
The tuna tataki also seemed to be an accidental dish that looks great but is wholly lackluster in flavor. What you get is a large cylinder of chopped, undressed tuna with a healthy layer of flying fish roe (masago) on top. It’s heavy, dull and lifeless even with the wasabi aioli and sriracha dots surrounding it. The unavailability of affordable decent tuna due to chronic overfishing is the real culprit here, but, as I’ve complained of other restaurants – if the quality is poor, it shouldn’t be served. Of all the things I’ve had at Bardo, this was my least favorite.
But, aside from the occasional flub, most of the dishes at Bardo are good stuff. I wasn’t expecting to taste much of any lobster in their lobster spring rolls, but I was completely wrong – the lobster emerged from the frying/stuffing process clean and strong. I also dig their vegetable spring rolls, which I admit are not exactly breaking much new ground, but they are very well prepared. The rolls were fried perfectly with a super-crisp exterior without a hint of residual oil – clearly superior to the standard greasy take-out version. They came with three dipping sauces – a spicy and vibrant habanero sweet sauce, hoisin and an uninspired riff on Chinese mustard. The habanero sauce was the star, and not much of it went back to the kitchen. Hampton Roads denizens might blanch at paying $6.88 for two spring rolls, and I would agree these seemed a tad overpriced, but they were tasty, nonetheless.
Even the “Level III” sides are fresh and flavorful and shine in their wonderful simplicity. The black sesame seared asparagus is just that, but what sticks out to me is how nice and crispy the asparagus spears are when they hit the table. The lemon juice and sesame oil on top take the asparagus to a new level without masking the flavor of the asparagus itself. The garlic and soy Brussels sprouts are simply killer and well, well worth the $3.88 they cost. At $1.88, the spicy and crunchy cucumber salad is a true bargain.
Like the food, the cocktails are all over the map flavor-wise. The “yuzurita” is on my “you-need-to-order-this” list. Despite Hampton Roads being a veritable margarita no-man’s-land, Bardo’s is a great vaguely Asian riff on this quencher and all the more interesting with a spiced salted rim. The “zen roq garden” is a great combination of vodka and white grape juice that has the perfect amount of light sweetness to it. Ordering the martini flight – three martinis of the bartender’s choosing – was a mistake. Being a strict gin-vermouth-olives martini type, I should’ve known better than to surrender control so deep in “appletini” country. What arrived were three miniature martini glasses filled with three pie-based “martinis”: cherry pie, apple pie and lemon meringue pie. All three were based on an almond liqueur combined with what I presume were either fruit bitters or flavored vodkas. The almond flavor dominated each drink to such a degree that any cherry and apple flavors were completely indiscernible. The lemon drink had a vague preserved lemon aroma to it, but none of the three are worth ordering. The “Magga,” on the other hand is a success story unto itself. This mix of berry-infused vodka, grape vodka, ginger ale and passion fruit is a fresh, light and fruity island cocktail that goes down dangerously easy.
The wine list deserves a nod, with no less than 20 wines offered by the glass. The list is refreshing in its variety and creativity, and especially in its willingness to shun all the usual grocery-store suspects. On one recent visit, the list featured a “champagne” from Tasmania (!), German rieslings (a smart choice given the spicy Asian flare of most dishes), a Spanish tempranillo, and even the crisp and fruity sauvignon blanc from the fantastic Clos Pegase winery in California.
Dizzying array of choices aside, Bardo makes for a fun dining experience. I think if they slashed the menu by about half and really focused on those dishes, the restaurant could reach even greater heights.
Address: 430 West 21st Street, Norfolk
Phone: (757) 622-7362
Note: Consider making reservations on weekends. Usually you can just walk in, but I recently ran into an hour-long wait for a table.