Sunday, May 20, 2018
Dining

Review: BT To Go has all of chef BT Nguyen's pizzazz in a grab-and-go spot

TAMPA

This is BT Nguyen's seventh restaurant, and it has been a long time coming. For the past few years every time I checked in with the lovely Vietnamese-American chef she would mention a new concept, something more casual, something family-friendly, something healthy with a grab-and-go component. But it had to be just right, evidently.

BT To Go opened a few weeks ago at the northern end of the little Bayshore Plaza shopping center that houses Osteria Natalina and Yoko's Japanese, a hair north of Pane Rustica. This is Palma Ceia's shopping epicenter, a neighborhood known for its affluent but busy families. Yes, they patronize her glamorous, splurgy Restaurant BT, but on a Tuesday night when one kid has band practice and the other just finished rowing crew (and is seriously starving, Mom), BT's high-end French-Vietnamese stylings just won't do.

Or will they?

Some of BT's most beloved dishes are right there on the brief one-page menu: chili chicken salad ($7.95 small, $11.95 large), vegetarian pumpkin soup with coconut milk and peanuts ($8.95 per pint). The bulk of the menu is available preprepared a bit like Fitlife Foods, stacked up in a shiny refrigerator case in black-and-clear plastic containers with white labels, most of the portions very ample for one person's dinner (maybe not that crew team guy).

The tagline is "fresh, healthy, authentic," and it is all of those things. She's a stickler about ingredients: organic tofu, ground grass-fed local beef, Alaskan wild pink salmon. Finished dishes, many of which can be eaten at room temperature or with a quick zap in the microwave, have a wholesome, homemade quality, bright with fresh herbs and nuoc cham.

On my first visit I waited for my order and sipped a green tea limeade ($3.95) in the tiny dining room, a regimented row of mason jars filled with rice, dried beans, sea salt, etc., providing an attractive focal point and a wall of live moss and twigs adding a vivid counterpoint. Back home we unpacked organic chicken curry stew ($12.95), lively with lemongrass and turmeric and with sly ingredients like nutty parsnips, as well as a homey beef rice bowl ($12.95), the mildly spicy ground meat paired with a scoop of yellow rice and a medley of snap peas, carrot and peppery baby bok choy.

Part of Nguyen's rationale for this new venture is to assuage dinner guests who ask for her more straightforward Vietnamese lunch items in the evening. Evenings at Restaurant BT are when she stretches out: lobster, langoustines, beef Wellington, all with her rigorous aesthetic for juxtapositions of color and texture. If you want her pho or banh mi or vermicelli rice bowls for dinner, now there's a way.

On that first visit I shared a banh mi, crisp baguette cradling pickled daikon and carrot, cilantro, cuke and fried shallot with a lush swath of truffled foie gras mousse ($15.95). There are also less extravagant versions like the one with housemade pork terrine ($6.95). On the second assay, we opted for a bowl of beef pho ($12.95) with a very wholesome but simple broth (not a lot of star anise flavor or tanginess), a textbook chicken vermicelli bowl ($12) and, one of my all-time faves, the chili chicken salad, zingy with ginger, garlic, caramelized shallot, chiles and sesame oil, and crunchy with shredded cabbage and mixed herbs.

Less than half a mile from her flagship restaurant, BT's new venture certainly seems wise vis a vis her commute. But it also makes business sense in a neighborhood that doesn't offer much quick-serve Vietnamese, at a price point and with a service style that doesn't cannibalize or duplicate what she's already doing. Her idea: You can order online and there's a pickup parking space to which a runner will hustle out with your food. Because she knows that sometimes you have the time for leisurely dining, other times it's let's eat NOW, but either way you want it to BTasty.

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.

     
 
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