"Mr. Ray" Nguyen loves Eagle Rock. He loves the neighborhood so much, in fact, that when it came time to open his beautiful, new, upscale restaurant Halong Bay, he put it right next door to , the bright, popular Vietnamese restaurant on Colorado Boulevard that he also owns.
Some might perceive the move as counter-intuitive. But longtime businessman Nguyen, fondly referred to as "Mr. Ray," sees the restaurants as complementing each other rather than competing.
“Lemongrass is more authentic Vietnamese cuisine,” he says. “Halong Bay is more of a high-end restaurant but still reasonably priced.” Both attest to Nguyen’s desire to offer food that helps people “live in good health.”
Subtlety and attention to rich detail are hallmarks of Mr. Ray's newest venture, which is named after one of Vietnam's top tourist destinations:
• The dramatic soaring ceiling at the front of the restaurant highlights the exposed brick walls, while the lowered ceiling in the rear of the restaurant minimizes noise and creates an intimate enclave with a gleaming wood bar.
• Carved, ornamental chopsticks are beautiful as well as environmentally conscious.
• Charmingly mismatched chandeliers and pendant lamps glow with the kind of warm light that makes everyone look good.
The equally subtle menu, which the restauranter describes as a “fusion of French and Vietnamese” cuisine rather than “regional” fare, was developed and refined over a two-year period with chef Henry Tran, formerly at Lemongrass. A sampling:
• Both the Halong Bay and Hanoi Spring Rolls have a surprise sliver of crispy rice paper roll at their centers—in addition to roasted pork in the case of the first appetizer and fried fish cake in the case of the second.
• Nguyen’s Noodles feature plump, grilled shrimp over thin noodles just kissed with garlic.
• The edamame in the XO Bo adds a toothsome bite and a lovely jade green accent to the dish’s bright red peppers and mahogany-hued, meltingly tender filet mignon.
• The delicious banana “dumplings” dessert offering isn’t the traditional idea of dumpling—it’s a plate of spring roll-shaped bananas encased in lightly fried rice paper on a bed of coconut cream and drizzled with chocolate.
On top of all that, the wait staff, headed by Halong Bay manager Alisia Engelhard, is friendly and attentive without being intrusive, making Halong Bay’s richly romantic atmosphere a date-night worthy destination whose prices make it possible to dine daily without draining the wallet.
Spring rolls, appetizers and salads run $6 to $9, while the Rice Entrees and Halong Bay’s signature “At the Chateau” entrees top out at $15, with the exception of the market-priced Homard (live lobster) and Crabe (live crab).
There’s a nicely chosen wine list and the bar features Eagle Rock Brewery’s Revolution XPA (Extra Pale Ale), a light, hoppy beer that’s a perfect complement to the delicately spiced cuisine.
The inclusion of a local brew and a commitment to hiring staff from the neighborhood are examples of Nyugen’s commitment to the Northeast Los Angeles community where he has lived for the past 25 years since emigrating to America from Vietnam at the age of 15.
As one of the investors in the now-defunct Tastebuds, Nyugen was an early booster of Eagle Rock’s food scene. He co-owns Halong Bay with his godbrother Dam Vin Huang, a Vietnamese musical superstar and owner of the Tu Ng Hung restaurant group in Vietnam.
Besides Halong Bay, which opened June 15, the partners share a commitment to helping worthy causes. Mr. Ray says he “supports 100 percent every organization, club, and school” in the neighborhood that asks for his help. (He mentions in particular.) A man who considers his staff “family,” he hopes that the greater community responds in kind by supporting his new restaurant.
Mr. Ray invites Eagle Rockers to check out the new “Chef’s Selections” at lunch time. “I love Eagle Rock,” he says. “We’re all just trying to make a living, get the job done, and create a healthy environment.”