Restaurant of the Week: Betel

Kathleen Squires
Could it be that seasons, direction of toilet-water flow, and devotion to Kylie Minogue aren't the only things that run the opposite way in Australia? Maybe busy restaurant nights are upside-down, too, judging from the scene at the new Aussie-run Betel. The numbers of pretty people clamoring for a table made a Monday night feel like a full-on New York Saturday. But it's easy to see why the neighborhood is so excited. Decent Asian eats are slim pickings in the West Village, and a team of Down-Under dandies have transformed one of the area's weakest Thai spots with a thrilling Southeast Asian menu. The alluring brick interior oozes chicness, with an elongated communal table, fabric-draped chandelier lamps and a cozy lounge set in the back. The spacious bar attracts dedicated followers of fashion sipping sexy spins on throwback cocktails like the Vietamint Julep ($12), a refreshing mix of gin, cucumber, Vietnamese mint and palm sugar. The menu gives an education in far-flung flavors; don't look for the usual pad Thai or green papaya salad here. Instead, there's the namesake betel leaf, a fragrant cousin of shiso, wrapped around either caramelized coconut, lemongrass, mint and peanuts ($3); smoked sea trout, trout roe, shrimp, galangal and chili ($3.80); or bo la lot ($12), grilled beef rolls perked up with a gingery, peppery dip known as red nahm jim. Scallop and cilantro dumplings ($14), more substantial in portion, yet with as much of a punch, come with a terrific salty/spicy garlic, chive and chili oil. Entrees are no less toned down; a stir-fried tofu ($20) with morning glory, chili, wild ginger, shiitake and black bean ensures you'll never call the curd bland again. And a jungle curry of snapper ($27) delivers all of the layered heat one could wish for, with snake beans adding a welcome crispness. A springy, rich duck egg custard ($12) with star anise and cinammon-like cassia bark ice cream cleverly concludes a truly exotic experience. My only beef: $3 per person for white steamed rice seemed a bit, well, topsy-turvy.
51 Grove St.,
(212) 352-0460

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