Years ago, when I was away at college, my parents rented out our family home and moved temporarily overseas. While they were gone, I returned for a visit to the town where we lived. Naturally, I drove past our house, maybe more than once. The kids in the yard were strangers. I had the key in my pocket but I couldn’t go in.
How strange it felt. I hadn’t thought about it since, until I ate at Banyan Bar + Refuge in the South End — more precisely, in the former Hamersley’s Bistro. The open kitchen is where it always was, but Gordon Hamersley in his baseball cap isn’t among the chefs. Joined at the bar by my editor, she points out the spot where we celebrated after I lucked into a job writing for her. Most of the people surrounding us are those kids in the yard. It doesn’t matter that others played here before. This space is theirs now. Restaurants are the worst and best settings for nostalgia.
Because this isn’t Hamersley’s anymore — doesn’t look like it, doesn’t feel like it — and that is how it should be. Banyan is a restaurant for today, the flavors inspired more by Asia than Europe, the menu offering a smorgasbord of small plates instead of appetizers and entrees, the drinks emphasized as much as the food. (Expect to read some variant of these sentences often in the coming months. Banyan ushers in a boom of restaurants serving Asian-inspired small plates, with Hojoko, Little Big Diner, and Tiger Mama hot on its heels.)
Cream-colored walls and wood beams have been replaced by a Russel Wright palette of chartreuse and gray, walls covered in vertical floor-to-ceiling branches, nestlike twig chandeliers hanging from above. The brick patio is quite as lovely as ever.
The slightly Gothic aesthetic of the twig chandeliers is the only thing that might lead one to connect it with sister restaurant The Gallows, located a few blocks away. Also behind Blackbird Doughnuts, owner Rebecca Roth Gullo and right-hand man Seth Yaffe are expert at creating businesses that are entirely distinct yet also just what the neighborhood needs. (Disclosure: Gullo recognized me each time I visited.)
They brought in chef Phillip Tang, formerly of the excellent East by Northeast in Cambridge, where he served modern, local versions of Chinese dishes. He previously worked at the likes of Lumiere, T.W. Food, and Hungry Mother, and his family runs A&J, a well-known dim sum restaurant in the D.C. suburbs. His food at Banyan is a continuation of that at East by Northeast — handmade mantou buns and dumplings, plenty of pickles, a harmonious coexistence among sweet, sour, and spicy flavors. But here it has much wider reach and much greater breadth. East by Northeast was tiny, with a menu that showcased a handful of dishes. Banyan’s menu is easily twice that size.
It begins with snacks, worthy accompaniments to sassy house cocktails like the Supreme Leader (Thai chile-infused vodka, coconut, and lime) and the Shaolin Sword (barrel-aged shochu, pomegranate seeds, and “trust,” which turns out to be some sort of Calpis-esque yogurt syrup). On tap: Painkillers and an Old Fashioned flavored with umeboshi and yuzu. There’s also sake, wine, and beer, but the drink no one can seem to resist is the Kirin slushie, beer topped with a frozen cloud of more beer. It’s a gimmick, but it’s fun.
Fried pig tails, however, are the real deal — succulent little nubs in a deeply savory garlic and black bean sauce. Wontons are filled with a pork mixture, then served with lashes of smoked tahini and chile oil, along with slices of fried jalapeno; the flavors are wonderful, but the dumpling skins are a bit thick. “Takoyaki” come in quotation marks because these fried spheres are made from calamari rather than the traditional Japanese octopus (“tako”). They are rich with aioli and a sweet soy glaze, topped with waving flakes of smoky bonito. The dud in the “snacks” category is the “delicious” chips and dip, a glorified take on potato chips and onion dip our servers push hard one night.
A dish of raw fluke plays so lightly with the flavors we know from “Asian chicken salad” — cashews, oranges, a soy-ginger vinaigrette — we don’t even recognize them. The fish is strewn across the plate with the citrus, matching cool slice for cool slice, sprinkled with warming chile oil. A more blatant play on salad riffs on the Caprese, combining tomatoes with burrata, tofu, tahini pesto, and black vinegar. It’s a great idea that falls short in execution, the tofu gritty and tasteless, the tomatoes not summer wonderful.
Tang and crew generally do right by vegetables. Smashed cucumbers, while not particularly smashed, are light and refreshing with lemon balm and pickled watermelon rind. The ubiquitous grilled corn on the cob gets its wow factor back, thanks to whipped coconut, toasted coconut, and togarashi spice. Half a grilled avocado is drizzled in garlic aioli and heaped with pickled daikon, carrots, and jalapenos, served with fingers of garlic bread. It looks like a stuffed baked potato and tastes like a banh mi, the pickles light and bright and crunchy, the aioli thick and rich.
One of the best dishes on the menu falls somewhere between Korean bibimbap and Persian tahdig — a flattened round of rice, top kernels crunchy from contact with high heat, piled with shreds of duck confit, corn, scallions, pickled daikon, and a soft-cooked egg, decorated in squirts of gochujang-spiked ketchup. But noodles, a forte of Tang’s at East by Northeast, are a disappointment — mostly in terms of their absence. They are featured in just one dish, a cold one that incorporates peaches, eggplant, sesame vinaigrette, and lemon balm. It sounds wonderfully refreshing, but even in the heat of summer it falls short, the flavors failing to come together. Perhaps winter will bring more and better examples.
Where there are too few noodles, there are too many buns: filled with lobster, fried oysters, pulled pork, or beef tongue, in addition to whatever bun-related specials might be offered on a given night. The lobster bun is served warm with honey-miso butter and excellent pickled sea beans, but the lobster itself comes in small, dry pieces rather than big bites of claw and tail. A cross between Chinese red-cooked pork and pulled pork fares better, with green cabbage slaw.
It all leads up to the “larger” category — big plates designed to feed everyone at the table. Slices of New York strip loin are dolloped with garlic-kimchi butter, served with more daikon pickles and spicy bean paste; the scallion pancakes on the side are doughy and bland. A whole fried fish is expertly done, the meat juicy, the presentation full of exciting flavors — spicy lime sauce, Sichuan peppercorn salt (not noticeably mouth-numbing), and ginger-scallion relish.
There is but one dessert: sesame cream puffs drizzled in salted miso caramel. There is no roast chicken. There is, however, a platter of fried chicken with potato salad, preserved lemon chimichurri, and furikake. Welcome to Banyan Bar + Refuge.
★ ★ ★ ★ Extraordinary
★ ★ Excellent
(No stars) Poor