The food arrives, lush with fresh herbs, mint and cilantro gradually releasing their crispness into hot broth amid a tangle of noodles. Rau ram, or Vietnamese coriander, creeps up the side of a bowl like ivy; a vertical papaya salad wears a crown of dill. The herbs are in the cocktails, too, potions of lemongrass gin and curry-infused bourbon, sprigs clipped to the side of the glass with cunning miniature wood clothespins. This room is a berth, in deep greens and blues, jungle fronds painted on a dark wall that opens to reveal chef Rachel Miller’s kitchen. The restaurant’s neon sign pulses, delightedly anatomical, the logo a flower with petals proudly spread.
This is Nightshade Noodle Bar, a botanical jewel box, filled with potted plants, blooming in Lynn. The city is in transition, at that point where there are loft apartments and wine bars and coffee shops, but there's also still room for weirdness, coolness, vision, art. Miller's love letter to Vietnamese food fits right into that moment.
Anyone who eats in Boston restaurants has been hearing from Miller for years, likely without knowing it. Her talents became clear when she signed on as sous chef at Bondir; she went on to work at TW Food, Coppa, and Clio, where she was chef de cuisine when it closed. What next? The right opportunity wasn't waiting for her, so she created one for herself.
Miller had been immersing herself in Vietnamese cooking, watching countless YouTube videos, reading about it, preparing it, and eating it. In 2017, she started a pop-up called Nightshade, serving dishes inspired by the cuisine. Meanwhile, in downtown Lynn, the couple who ran the Campus Coffee Shop for more than 30 years decided to retire. Miller, a Lynn resident, had gotten to know them. Everything aligned. After more than 60 pop-ups, Nightshade had a home.
The menu changes frequently while remaining true to its name: This is a noodle bar, and half of the offerings feature vermicelli, casarecce, egg noodles. The other half is dominated by rice, plus oysters and a few salads and snacks.
On one visit I love Miller's version of bun rieu, a crab noodle soup in tomato broth. At Nightshade, vermicelli steep in broth with Jonah crab, heritage pork shoulder, and tofu, topped with tomato confit, strips of citrus peel, and a riot of green herbs. (I'd wager Nightshade Noodle Bar goes through more dill per capita than any other area restaurant.) The result is deep and bright, satisfying and light. I could eat this weekly, and I'm sad to find it gone on my next visit.
Another disappeared dish illustrates Miller’s thoughtful approach to this food: a seafood noodle soup made with prawn broth, pho noodles, mussels and clams, lobster, and perch, plus pickled fennel and herbs. It comes with toast slathered in saffron rouille. It’s Vietnamese-style bouillabaisse, a dish that makes sense in terms of flavor and history. France occupied Vietnam for decades, and the culinary legacy of colonization includes banh mi, the beef stew bo kho, coffee, and more.
The green papaya salad is a clever construction, crunchy shreds in a fish sauce-spiked buttermilk dressing with mint, peanuts, and ranch-spiced sesame crackers. It’s cookout coleslaw, but very much not. I admire the concept but wish the flavors were bolder. Bone marrow fried rice, on the other hand, is one of the best things on Nightshade’s menu. The bowl of fragrant, savory rice is dolloped with black vinegar aioli and flecked with smoked raisins, a marrow-filled bone protruding from the center with a spoon for scooping out the richness. The raisins are the true genius of this dish, lending bursts of complex sweetness, like taking sips of sherry or Madeira as you eat.
There’s another version of fried rice made with Dungeness crab, strikingly served in the creature’s shell, with ginger-scallion vinaigrette and black garlic. The flavors are mellow and delicious, but the taste of delicate crab gets lost in the composition. The broth in a duck and bamboo soup with vermicelli, on the other hand, is overpoweringly bamboo-scented. It’s served with a dish of rare duck, shredded cabbage, and banana blossom; assemble bites at will. I prefer another vermicelli dish, bun cha, with pork broth and brown butter-tamarind pork crepinettes (a French preparation of ground-meat patties wrapped in caul fat). It’s so buttery and luxurious, and the accompaniments of crisp lettuce, herbs, chiles, and prettily cut pickled vegetables offset that perfectly.
It's hard to combine dishes here without encountering redundancy: multiple vermicelli soups, multiple dishes of fried rice. It's a reminder that this is Nightshade Noodle Bar, and the best thing to do is come for drinks and a bowl of noodles or a snack such as bo la lot, fragrant packages of curried beef wrapped in betel leaves — the way one would as a neighborhood regular. I'll happily drive out of my way to eat here on occasion, but if I lived nearby, I'd come all the time.
I've fallen for the verdant, intimate space; the cushioned high-top tables and gossipy, convivial bar scene; the surprise of new dishes and the constant through line of basil, dill, rau ram. I appreciate the funky little wine list from Liana Van de Water, wine director and Miller’s partner, showcasing sparkling pét-nat and whites and light reds that work well with this food, plus the selection of local beer and cider. And I'm enamored with barman John Groh's cocktails, which incorporate ingredients true to this cuisine in innovative, delicious ways: the Anethum, made with lemongrass gin, dill, basil, lime, and buttermilk-maple fish sauce; the Saigon Cigar Club, a must-order potion of bourbon, black cardamom, and rau ram.
There’s one dessert at Nightshade Noodle Bar, and on my visits it’s a hibiscus panna cotta with black cocoa tapioca, blueberry-cardamom pop rocks, and cocoa nibs. It is freewheeling yet properly made, the panna cotta perfectly wobbly rather than stiff. It tastes like PB&J and bubble tea had a baby. I am not surprised, but delighted, to find myself surprised and delighted.
NIGHTSHADE NOODLE BAR ★★½
73 Exchange St., Lynn, 781-780-9470, www.nightshadenoodlebar.com
All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Smaller plates $5-$18, larger plates $18-$35, dessert $9.
Hours Dinner Wed-Fri 5-10 p.m., Sat-Sun 5:30-10 p.m. Brunch Sat-Sun 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
Noise level Conversation, and gossip with neighboring barflies, easy.
What to order Bo la lot, bone-marrow fried rice, bun cha, the Saigon Cigar Club, any new menu addition that catches your fancy.
★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★ Excellent | ★★ Good | ★ Fair | (No stars) Poor