What does whimsical decor tell us about a restaurant? In decades past, at American Chinese restaurants that called themselves "Polynesian," dragon-inlay woodwork and paper-placemat cocktail menus helped to frame an exotic dining experience for customers who (in my memory) seldom shared the heritage of management and staff. The decor was part of a marketing pitch from one demographic to others, openly offered and accepted. Today, few Polynesian restaurants survive in their original form; one made-over tiki pole now bears the countenance of a contented New England fisherman.
This matter came to mind again on a visit to the small, excellent Vietnamese restaurant Thanh Da, in Sunset Park. My only published photo of the decor depicts a flag, one that's no longer publicly displayed in its home country, but I also noted laquered-wood artwork, mounted crockery, a painted bamboo scroll, and at least one nón lá, the iconic conical hat. These items would be kitschy if they were intended to appeal to eyes like mine, but in a full house, I was the only customer clearly not of Asian descent. True, several young parents addressed their very young, finicky children in English, but on a weekend afternoon, as on my previous visits, almost all the chatter was in Vietnamese. In such context, the nón lá, the scroll, the crockery, and the other artwork seemed to distill into Thanh Da a feeling of "home."
Azerbaijan House, though it entertained fewer customers during a recent weekday lunch, gave off a similar vibe. Though the decor will never resonate for me as for the owners and their regular customers, it does signal that the menu deserves a further look. Shown: kükü ($5.95), a hash of egg, potato, and onion that's seared top and bottom before being portioned into wedges; ciz-biz ($16.95), a juicy fry-up of sheep liver, kidney, and heart. (Kükü, it turns out, takes very well to spoonfuls of liquefied sheep fat.) The final photo, of the glistening ciz-biz leavings, reflects a pair of vibrant lighting strips but not the gently arched ceiling. It's painted in azure and fluffy white, as if the dining room were open to the sky — the sky over Baku, you'd imagine.
2612 East 14th St. (at Sheepshead Bay Rd.), Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn