Belly Kitchen and Bar is the first restaurant from Instrumental Hospitality Group (Michael Babcock, Wayne Coats, Robert Cissell, and Paul Waxman), and its planned-for March 2020 opening was highly anticipated due to the following Coats and Babcock grew at Garfield favorite Welcome Diner. The pandemic extended that anticipation. Belly ended up opening in November, with Babcock, who heads up the kitchen, having bent his menu to the needs of takeout. This month, though, he plans to swing back to a menu more tailored to dine-in. Most of the dishes I tried, he confirmed, are scheduled to stay.
The restaurant is located in a Melrose space built like a shoebox on its side. Inside, music bumps and the heavy dimness is thinly starred with tabletop candles. It’s a buzzy den of inventive cocktails, surreal art, and dishes that cherrypick mostly from Southeast Asia. Broadly, Belly braids a loose mesh of flavors linked with that region, such as ginger, basil, lemongrass, coconut milk, chiles, and many others. There are also some sparser influences from East Asia, like Hoisin and Japanese sweet potatoes. Babcock’s interest in the cooking of Japan, which stems partly from his Japanese grandmother, runs very faintly on the menu’s edges. The core focus is on Vietnam, on dishes like pho, banh mi, banh xeo, and then on a motley mix of other dishes calibrated with the flavors of the region (see: Vietnamese pizza).
To start, the crispy spring rolls rock. Jammed with wood ear mushrooms and pork, these pack an umami counterbalanced some with jicama and nuoc cham. The server instructs you to wrap your rolls in lettuce, and even swaddled in a leaf the tubes tear and crackle as you chomp in.
An herb and noodle bowl is just that: rice noodles tangled in a bowl, mint, basil, and a bunch of colorful vegetables, everything cold. The nuoc cham enhances both openers. For it, the kitchen uses a house-infused vinegar.
Eating at Belly, a pattern tends to recur. You get some food — a pancake, a roll, maybe noodles. You have a nuoc cham for dipping. There’s basil and maybe mint. You dip. You eat.
Like the food, Belly’s drinks crib from the flavor palette of Vietnam and its neighbors. These cocktails are creative and intricate. Some use split spirits (mezcal and tequila, bourbon and rum, rum and cachaca). Others loop in thoughtful components like wine-barrel-aged gin, champagne vinegar, arak, or lemon marmalade. Not all cocktails are perfect, like a rye-based sour Christmas-y with cinnamon and a pineapple-packed reposado sipper with an overly aromatic salted rim. Still, even these cocktails have their virtues and you’ll very likely be happy to taste around this juicy, citrus-forward list.
Try my favorite cocktail, the Saigon heat. This one unites rum and cachaca, a Brazilian spirit fermented from cane sugar juice. It has a clean, bright backbone with a bit of funk, and, in the heartbeats after you put your lips to the coupe, the liquid whirls your many floral and botanical flavors, through lime, lime leaf, lemongrass, and chile. It drinks almost like a daiquiri took a long, strange trip away from Cuba.
This drink, though excellent, has one major flaw. The lime leaf used has a few names. One — the name that Belly uses — actually contains a racial slur. In recent years, there has been a movement away from this name and toward another, “makrut lime leaf.” Given that Belly is a Southeast Asian-inspired restaurant run by owners who aren’t Southeast Asian, I would have hoped they would have done the heavy research to avoid this kind of thing. This might seem abstract and weirdly pedantic, but I believe it’s important. Since Belly is a restaurant that riffs on, and profits from, the foodways of another culture, it would be nice to see this culture centered a bit more. Maybe this could happen by sharing more history, or by highlighting the people and places that inspired the riffs, or by sincerely honoring the people behind the food traditions in a more visible way.
The strongest zone of the menu is probably clay pots — stewy dishes served, if you wisely pull the trigger on the add-on, with a side of jasmine rice. One pot contains succulent chicken dyed with turmeric and boosted with ginger, garlic, and mint. Another stars pork belly in its heady glory, just swimming in a deep dark pool of coconut juice, fish sauce, and allium. These can be a bit salty, but they’re on point, especially when enjoyed with drinks.
I would also try a flavorful chicken pho and a sausage-laden banh mi once built on a torta roll but now on a more conventional baguette. These are both good and a few steps beyond the norm, though I don’t know if they quite match the very best versions around town.
In my mind, Belly’s food peaks with that pork belly, a crispy fish entrée, and a banh xeo. The fish, sourced from Nelson’s Meat + Fish, is fried to a nice sultry golden-brown. It has been finished in yogurt sauce zipping with turmeric, fish paste, and dill. Once you’ve evenly distributed this sauce over the fish morsels (do this or it’s on the salty side), you have a texturally joyous, refreshing plate of food. The banh xeo? Heavily browned to the edge of being blackened. The halfmoon pancake is crisp and snappy, just spilling slightly sweet crabmeat perfumed with a smidgen of Old Bay.
All in all, I am curious to see how Belly evolves moving forward. Already, the Instrumental folks are lined up to open a second Belly location in Epicenter at Agritopia, the ambitious Gilbert mixed-use project that will blend commercial and residential spaces. I hope the owners can let their research and props to the culture they borrow from shine through a bit more. The drinks are creative and well made. The food can hit the spot, too. I think the changes made on the road to Belly 2.0 will tell the full story.
Belly Kitchen and Bar
4971 North Seventh Avenue
Handmade Crispy Rolls $9
Cha Lua Banh Mi $12
Pork Belly & Egg Claypot $17
Crispy White Fish $30
Crab Ban Xeo $22
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