Omai, Where are We Eating? + Baked Fabulosity at Billy’s Bakery

There are nights where you plan out your evening meticulously—dinner at 6, show at 8, group sex at 11–and nights where you don’t. Last night was a night we didn’t. Lisa came over at 7 and we began to stroll. It was quite lovely out and our goal was a place with outdoor seating. Rafaella came to mind but Lisa felt, despite the outside seating, it wasn’t quite worth the expense. We were on 23rd Street and suddenly a light bulb went on over my head: “Hey!” I said. “Look at this light bulb over my head! I have an idea!”

Lisa gave me a look. “Well?”

“Remember that e-mail you sent me a while back?” Lisa had sent me an e-mail a while back. “It was an article about Billy’s Bakery… I think it’s on 9th Avenue. We can have dinner around there and then go to the bakery for dessert.”

“Or we can have dessert first,” said Lisa, “and then eat dinner.”

“That’s ridiculous!” I stammered. “Who eats dessert before dinner? I don’t know anyone who eats dessert before dinner.”

“Everyone I know eats dessert before dinner,” said Lisa.

“But it’s so filling,” I argued.

“Cake is NOT filling,” she argued back. “I could eat cake all day and not get full.”

So I leave it to you readers: Is it ridiculous to eat dessert before dinner? (Side with me and win an airplane!)

As for our Saturday night plans, I won the debate and we checked the hours at Billy’s Bakery to make sure it wouldn’t close too early. (It actually stays open crazy late! Keep that in mind, those who live in Chelsea who have a hankering for baked goods…)

A few blocks down from Billy’s we beheld this sight:

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“Why that looks like a nice place to eat,” I said.

“What is it?” asked Lisa.

“I’m not quite sure.”

You see, this place was a nameless wonder. No name on the outside. No menu on the outside. No indication at all of what was being served here.

“How interesting” I said, pressing my face up against the glass. “I think they’re eating with chopsticks. It must be Asian.”

Lisa pressed her face against a window too. “Doesn’t seem too expensive,” she said, staring at someone who was staring at a menu. “Entrees around $12.”

“Let’s do it!” I said, and we made our way in.

A host greeted us.

“Two please,” we said, and as he led us to our table I said, “Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure,” said the host.

“Where are we? What’s the name of this place?”

“Haha,” he said, and then detecting that I wasn’t joking he said, “We’re called Omai. We serve Vietnamese food.”

Lisa had never had Vietnamese food. I’d had it in Atlanta at Nam. This would be an exciting evening for both of us.

Eventually, though, Lisa made a good point. “Do you notice that there aren’t any Vietnamese people who work here?”

I looked around and spotted a Vietnamese woman by the kitchen.

“She’s Vietnamese,” I protested.

“She’s the only one,” said Lisa. And that was true. For the most part the restaurant was populated by and run by gay men. We were, after all, in Chelsea.

“Maybe it’s fusion,” I offered. “VietGaynese!”

We ordered some Vietgaynese vegetarian spring rolls. I pointed to it on the menu and said: “Are these vegetarian spring rolls vegetarian?” I was looking out for Lisa but the waiter and Lisa stared at me like I was an idiot.

“I’m an idiot,” I said.

Here are the rolls:

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These were tasty. Lisa really enjoyed the beany dipping sauce. So did I. It was familiar yet different. Like Vietnam by way of EPCOT.

For my entree I had duck:

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The duck was good. I couldn’t complain. The meat was tender, the outside crispy, and the dipping sauce an unusual lime concoction. Lisa had a vegetarian curry which she enjoyed.

We got our bill, paid the check, and made our way enthusiastically to Billy’s Bakery.

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The moment you open the door at Billy’s Bakery the aroma of baked goods overwhelms you. It’s a sweet aroma—the aroma you might want your grandmother’s house to smell like if she weren’t boiling cabbage and complaining about incontinence. Glass cases filled with cupcakes, cakes, and pies illuminate under a pleasant soft lighting. A quirky gent in plastic-framed glasses (could this be Billy?) asks what you’d like.

We asked for suggestions. “What’s the best?” we asked.

He recommended the banana cake and the icebox cake: layers of chocolate wafers and whipped cream pressed together and refrigerated. We took his advice, ordered and paid.

Here’s Lisa with the results:

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We both liked the banana cake better, but the icebox cake was cool and refreshing, but refreshing only the sense that it was cool and the whipped cream was light: otherwise, it was like pouring cement into a an already full sandbox. Or something.

Lisa and I felt that the prices were a tiny drop steep for what you’re getting. ($4.50 per slice of cake.) What you are getting, essentially, is something you can very much do at home. In fact, the banana cake reminded me of a cake I made a few years ago from Saveur–a hummingbird cake with pineapple, coconut and banana. The icebox cake is, I’m sure, very doable too. That’s not the point though: Billy’s does it so you don’t have to. And it’s a very cute place, too. A fun place to go after dinner or, if you’re Lisa, before dinner… but that’s crazy. ISN’T THAT CRAZY?

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