Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Getting off the Streets - Vietnam Food

Investigation of restaurant opportunities in Hanoi led us to Nam Phuong, which offered 'traditional' Vietnamese cuisine within the fine dining confines of a revamped French villa, located within strolling distance from Hoan Kiem Lake. There was hardly time to wipe the sweaty post-walk sheen off our faces nor be dazzled by its fairylight cobwebbed facade before we were set upon by beaming doormen to escort us up the front steps. Inside was a franco-colonial alternate reality to real world Hanoi, air chilled to perfect ambience, muted jazz tunes and decor carefully chosen to provide only a romanticised hint of the foreign life on the other side of the pastel olive-yellow walls. Pretty waitresses in elegant silk ao dai sealed the bubble. The maître d', a tall slightly portly but blatantly effeminate fellow in his own brightly coloured traditional dress provided a cheerful and not unwelcomed relief to the stately mood. An expatriated Thai, Mr Arkracha energetically greeted and farewelled guests and marshalled his troops in feigned brusqueness through the evening. Witnessing him delicately donning surgical gloves to deftly shell crab legs for hapless neighbouring Japanese guests was a chuckle. And that, is my general take on Nam Phuong. A dining destination dedicated to tourists, businessmen on accounts, consular staff and the like who don't mind laying out the cash to eat 'as the natives do' in a venue where the local masses never will.

Food was presented beautifully. Our centrepiece dish was Ca Mu Chien, a whole fish (large freshwater goby) deepfried and served with an oyster sauce of ginger, mushrooms, fresh and dried scallops, and sharkfin strands. Impressive on the plate but despite being garnished with just about every Asian treasure from the sea, lacked a certain 'oomph' thus failing to totally mask the slight taint of pondage in the fish. Perhaps I'd been spoiled with similar and infinitely cheaper dishes had at the suburban bia hoi cafes over the previous week, including a remarkable fish-kettle braise of carp with no muddy or weedy taste whatsoever! Our dinner at Nam Phuong with a sweet-sour soup, starter of two crispy soft shell crabs stuffed with a rich crab-roe mayo, a couple of mains and a few drinks came to 1.4 million VND or just over A$100, a somewhat expensive feat in Vietnam. I would reconsider this place for its ambience, for the pleasant service, for the clever female trio of folk musicians and even for Mr Arkracha (as long as he keeps his hands away from my large, err...goby), but can't wholeheartedly rave about the food.
Nam Phuong Vietnamese Restaurant, 19 Phan Chu Trinh Street, Hanoi.

Food that I can, and will wholeheartedly rave about though, was found at restaurant Quan An Ngon. What can I say about this place that hasn't already been said by many. Not so much a fancified foodcourt but a food courtyard. A convenient gathering of individual cooking stations operated by streetfood traders whisked away from the streets, screened for the quality of their respective specialities, and all brought into one compound consisting of both roofed and greenery filled open-air dining areas. Again the atmosphere was not of a foodcourt but that of a relaxed restaurant, with menus organising everything on offer and service provided by uniformed waitstaff. And on the evening we visited it seemed that half of Hanoi was there, the warm air was thick with mouthwatering smoky smells and the unmistakeable hubbub of folks feasting around laden tables...surrounded with proper chairs no less. Add to that clean cutlery and hardfloors that won't require the skills of Katarina Witt to negotiate and it's a near perfect Hanoian food experience. Blessed are the little luxuries.

A starter of battered prawn and sweet potato fritters (Banh Tom) with perfectly vinegared and sugared dipping fish sauce (nuoc mam cham). Crunched with gusto and surely the best way to go for one's calcium supplementation. Calorific but utterly delicious.

How can we sit down for a mixed meal in Hanoi without smacking into some Chao Tom (barbequed shrimp paste moulded around sticks of sugarcane)? We can't! These were served as a dish with thin rice vermicelli squares, assorted herbage, thin rice paper for wrapping and nuoc cham for dipping, but the sequence in the process was a puzzle until a waiter standing by took it upon himself to be my personal food coach for the evening. He was watchful too! One wrong move such as a care less jumble of everything together to shove greedily into my mouth would illicit a tut-tutting tap on the hand, a shake of his head, and a mimed demonstration on how it should be done; savage uncouth foreigner! Yes all without uttering a word. I didn't mind, it added to the experience. What a laugh!

Two noodle soup dishes followed, first was bun cha (sizzling, flame barbequed balls of minced pork to add with vermicelli noodles into a room temperature bowl of nuoc cham). The charred pork balls smelled so good that we dunked them into the liquid broth (actually my helpful friend above did) and tucked in before even thinking of a photograph! This dish must surely be one of my more memorable tastes of Hanoi, having not encountered it anywhere else before. It's supposed to be primarily a lunchtime dish but I guess the benefit of eating off the streets is that such limitations go out the window. The second bowl was Mien Luon (chargrilled eel in noodle soup, pictured), also superb. Fatty chunks of eel with crispy charred edges in a savoury soup stock, herbage and soft noodles.

In case you hadn't noticed I loved this place, but a parting note of caution. The fabulous savouriness of the dishes here is helped along by a supercharging with sodium glutamate (like most if not all local dishes in Vietnam). The price is a quenchless thirst to remember the experience by.
Quan An Ngon, 18 Phan Boi Chau Street, Hanoi.

[Local names of dishes transcribed with help from great blogs Noodlepie and Stickyrice, invaluable resources for discovering the breath of Vietnamese cuisine and streetfoods]


thanh7580 said...

I love the prawn meat wrapped around sugar cane. You gotta love the MSG though, it gives everything that oomph, until it's too much and your tongue feels like it's been cut up by tiny little swords.

If you are back in Melbourne, hopefully you can come to the bloggers BBQ Towser. Duncan, Sarah and myself are organising it. Would love to meet you in person. Here are the details at Duncan's blog.

Blogger's BBQ details

Towser said...

Thanks for the invite Thanh, we'll definitely try to make the Bloggers' BBQ!