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The Washington Post‘s Tom Sietsema tried to like Ba Bay, but couldn’t. When I went there, I tried to order a meatless entrée off the menu, but couldn’t.

Chef Nick Sharpe, who snuck away from the kitchen for a few minutes just as lunch service was ending to answer some questions, aims for modernity in its take on Vietnamese food. The theory, as Ba Bay’s website explains it:

Ba Bay means “Madame Seven” and is our grandmother’s nickname. With the help of some friends, our modern Vietnamese menu is a nod to her and the belief in how food should be enjoyed. Just a few tweaks gran, we promise!

In Sietsema’s review, he reinforced its modern approach:

Yes, it’s meant to be modern, but some of this food strays too far from what is revered as a fresh and delicate cuisine.

But when I asked Sharpe why there weren’t any meatless items on the menu, his face scrunched, as he pretended to hide his frustration from a food writer. I encouraged him to vent, with my pen in hand, and tell me why in 2011, in a major city, in such a self-consciously modern restaurant, he hasn’t caved to the vocal vegetarian community’s demands.

He called over to the host stand for Khoa Nguyen, the Vietnamese man in charge, to validate his points. They both explained that most dishes from the Southeast Asian country feature meat and seafood. Sharpe says he’s “keeping true” to their cuisine. “I want to find a really solid dish that speaks to me” before including any vegetarian item on the menu, he says. Nguyen confirms his chef’s sentiments, noting there were not that many vegetarians in Vietnam, many of them were vegetarian for religious reasons and “they only stay vegetarian for a certain time of the year.”

To be fair, in Ba Bay’s rotating menu, there are sometimes vegetarian sides (although many of his vegetables are cooked in a meat-base stock or flavored with fish sauce), and many of the items can be cooked to order without any meat products. But anyone who wants a meatless meal has to specifically ask to change an item. Sharpe says he’s happy to make his dishes vegetarian-friendly, although it’s much more pleasurable for vegetarians to order something without requesting alternative preparations.

I didn’t call them on their doublespeak at the time, just silently nodded and took notes. It’s one thing for the team behind Ba Bay to say they are a modern restaurant and cull influences from around the globe, but then they can’t use the excuse that they’re being true to Vietnamese cuisine as their reason for not incorporating meatless dishes on the menu.

Pick a side, Ba Bay.

Photo: Ba Bay