It's a beautiful legend. Long ago, when the Vietnamese were battling Chinese invaders, the gods zapped earthward a family of fierce dragon warriors to defend the Vietnamese. The reptiles spit jade and jewels into tempestuous waters, these gleaming treasures turning into islands that formed a protective barrier. Peace was restored, and the place of the mythical battle was named Ha Long.
The looming limestone structures that dot Ha Long Bay, near the Gulf of Tonkin, look like something the gods must have had a hand in. Shrouded in mist, these monoliths rise up, deep green and otherworldly. To check them out, visit the new Ha Long Bay restaurant. It's one of the prettiest Asian restaurants in the bay area, its walls decorated with oversized canvases of its namesake bay. Walls glow a pale pea green, like the reflection from all those dragon-hurled bits of jade.
With one of the more complex lighting systems in local restaurants (warm and bright by day, moody and atmospheric by night), this newcomer has two tinkling water features, a huge stylish dining area and a fleet of nimble servers scooting between dining room and big, quasi-open kitchen.
At lunch it's classic Chinese dim sum cart service ($3 to $6 per plate), from well-formed har gau (shrimp dumplings) to pillowy pork buns, slithery rice noodle rolls and shu mai (crimped dough blossoms with ground pork jutting out the top).
The rest of the day gives way to more straight-ahead Vietnamese cuisine with the odd Chinese add-on (garlic-kissed water spinach, $9.95, kung pao-ish chicken, $6.99). What Ha Long is doing differently is this: familiar Vietnamese preparations of interesting proteins. There's lemongrass-spangled deer stir-fry ($18.50), same with frog ($8.99), quail fried crispy in butter ($6 as appetizer, $11.99 as entree), and duck and chicken feet as the stars of herb-spiked salads ($17.95 and $16.95, respectively). Shredded pork skin, chitlins and "pork innards" appear with regularity.
Before the timid eater quakingly turns the page: Dishes are accessible, balanced and heavy on the mint/cilantro/bean sprout/lime/fish sauce balance for which Vietnamese food is beloved. Vermicelli bowls ($6.99 to $7.99) are crowded with crunchy veggies and lengths of fried egg roll or grilled chicken breast. Five-spice duck breast — star anise and Szechuan peppercorn sliding across the palate — studs a soft rice dish ($7.99); hot and sour broth is crowded with prawns and swirls of fragrant basil ($17.99).
Taiwan may have invented boba tea (the fat-straw tea drinks through which one slurps big tapioca pearls), but the Vietnamese have run with it. Ha Long Bay has an extensive list of exotic smoothies with boba (all $3). Honeydew melon, green tea and coconut all make fabulous desserts.
The real Ha Long Bay's origins are steeped in fanciful tales of dragon warriors, but St. Petersburg's new Ha Long Bay restaurant is the product of hardworking and savvy terrestrials who wield magic with Vietnamese and Chinese cuisine.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.