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]

Monday, 29 December 2008

Images from Hanoi - Vietnam Food

This latest trip to Hanoi was over two months ago. Everytime I travel for work, I envision that there'll be plenty of downtime to blog whilst on the trip. Well of course that's never the case. If I'd spent the evening back in the hotel room, I would either be stuck with my usual desperate rush to complete preparations for meetings the following day, or have returned so weary that all I would manage is to lie prostrate over the gluttony of pillows and listlessly cycle over 20 plus channels of nothing...in a foreign language.

Any-hour traffic in Hanoi's streets. Australians beware before stepping foot to cross. They come at you from the other way! Don't bother waiting for a break, it won't happen. Local's tip to me, just make sure you've eyeballed who/whatever is bearing down on you and you won't get hit. It works, for the most part.

Pho (pronounced 'fur' as far as I can approximate) for breakfast at a streetside stall across from the hotel, just one of many pho stalls dotting Hanoi's streets. I'll have to admit that the novelty wore off after the first few times of slurping noodles with my knees around my ears (note kiddie stools) accompanied by traffic fumes and whiffs of gutter drainage that had been percolating in the tropical heat.

A hearty bowl of bun bo (Beef Rice Noodle Soup) from the same stall. For approximately one extra Australian dollar when ordered via the hotel's small dining room, the concierge dashes across the street with a dishwasher-cleaned bowl and returns in 5 minutes to serve it up with accompanying greens. This order consisted of brisket beef with softened tendons, tripe, miscellaneous vessels, steamed cubes of congealed blood, some sort of spammy pork sausage and a knuckle of pork hock. All good things.

There was an option of buying a shot of steeped snake and reptile wine at a somewhat tourist orientated cafe at Halong, on a short side trip to its World Heritage listed coastline. Alledged to cure all ails from the common cold to flagging libido and more, though I was dubious that such an elixir would help in any way with the only ailment bothering me at the time. Mild diarrhoea from suspect seafood. So I passed.

Somewhat sunbaked fruits hawked by dexterous rowboat traders at Halong Bay.

Aside from the few pics shown here, I had some amazing meals during my couple of weeks in North Vietnam. Experiences at some of the restaurants I'd visited in Hanoi city will follow in the next post, but some of the more interesing dishes I sampled were found in the bia (beer) cafe I was taken to daily, to lunch with colleagues I was visiting. Stirfried vegetables of countless exotic variety, whole fish (carp and snakehead) hotpot braised with tamarind and mint, super crispy fresh baguettes served with mounds of soft butter and white sugar, obligatory plates of deep fried crinkle-cut fries, rather gamey salads with cold sliced goat meat, delicious claypot braised eel, stirfried frog ribs and legs, and on and on. Not to mention toasts after toasts with Hanoi bia hoi, the local fresh beer. No wonder the locals require a post-lunch siesta to break up their workdays!

I leave readers with a thit cho (dog meat) restaurant snapped on my way to the airport. Such establishments are found in certain sections of the Old Quarter and around the city outskirts, including along the highway to Noi Bai. Traditional ones are distinctively double story Tay buildings raised on stilts, with seating on the upper level. I declined several invitations, not being able to get past my western sensibilities. My blogging 'pen'-name "Towser" is in reverence to my pet pooch after all.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Like Wine for Chocolate – Cocoa Farm Wine Chocolate Barrels

Previously unbeknownst to me, there are gourmet missionaries out there who challenge themselves to find the most compatible wines to partner with fine chocolate. And why not, a double whammy of euphoric neurostimulation if it works I suppose. My own experiences had been limited to spontaneous and regrettable occasions when mouth puckered at unpleasant tartness as vin du jour clashed with tastebuds sweetened with the preceding chocolaty morsel. I’d been trying it all wrong and haphazard it seems, just should’ve made sure my wine of choice was sweeter to the palate than the chocolate. A syrupy fortified perhaps, or a luscious Aussie botrytis semillon. But fresh reds like merlot, pinot noir or shiraz? Well, home-grown chocolate brand Cocoa Farm of Melbourne-based company Farm by Nature believes so and has taken out the guesswork with their Wine Chocolate products.

Farm by Nature Marketing asked Spot4Nosh whether we would like to review their new Shiraz Wine Chocolate Barrel gift box product and after absolutely no arm twisting by them whatsoever, we promptly agreed to a complimentary box in the mail to sample. A nicely evocative box containing individually wrapped mini ‘wine-barrels’ of a blend of milk and dark chocolate (38% cocoa solids) which in turn encased raisins that had been thoroughly soaked in wine, Australian shiraz in this case. Nothing too different from your standard raisin studded choc bar perhaps but the angle is in the infusion of ‘real’ wine into the fruit. The wine flavour is subtle, nothing like the harsh liquid bitterness of liqueur chocolates. It leaves a faintly tart but not at all unpleasant aftertaste, which actually became quite moreish. I am not usually one who’ll go weak at the knees when presented with chocolate, but the wine chocolate barrels were quite good. I guess the mouthfeel could have been smoother, not quite up there with the really good boutique or European products. And I’m not quite convinced one will be able to tell the difference between the three wine ‘flavours’ in the range. All the same, Cocoa Farm chocolate beats many of the mass products found on the supermarket shelves. That the wine chocolate range was developed by Australian food technologists is a plus. The company has also invested in Australia’s first commercial cocoa plantation in North Queensland which will make for even more of a home grown product. I certainly wouldn’t mind another gift box or three to savour over after-dinner coffee or further glass of shiraz. It’s the season to be jolly after all! To the gifters, you may have to hunt around a little for them!

Lets Start With Something Sweet - Balha's Pastry

A selection of buttery filo, pistachio, semolina and syrupy goodness at Balha's Pastry

Yes I have been absent and neglectful for some time. I do admit to reaching a point where Blogger’s more annoying idiosyncrasies such as its unpredictable interpretation of command lines and tendency to spontaneously evaporate uploaded pictures into the ether, irritated me more than was rational. That and the grudging realisation that experiences were becoming more about the photo and blogability than food and companionship. So perhaps it had been timely hiatus. But the main excuse is really that life had been crazy busy including the purchase of our first home, then having to spend weeks overseas on my day job away from that same lovely, and equally neglected house! But in that time we have certainly not stopped eating and there had been quite a few interesting not to mention exotic food experiences. And I’m excited to tell again…

For those of us who love exotic sweet treats it’s hard to go past Balha’s Pastry in Brunswick, a palatial temple to Middle Eastern desserts complete with twin grand staircases that lead up to an upper floor for seat-in indulgence. What’s more, they remain open to 10 pm all week to cater for those occasional late evening cravings with strong, drink-this-and-forget-about-sleep coffees. The challenge at Balha's comes in attempting to choose from the endless arrays on display and waiting for ones turn to nominate that choice amongst the eager weekend crowds hungry for their buttery syrup fix. Our usual strategy is to grab a counter ticket before dodging in for a reccy of the displays. We’ll then hopefully be ready to point to our selections when our number is called! My current favourite is a generous ‘slice’ containing a soft labneh-like filling that is sandwiched between crispy vermicellied kataifi wafers topped with pistachio crumbs and drizzled liberally with orange blossom or rosewater syrup…whimper.

Spot Score: 15/20

Balha’s Pastry
761 Sydney Road, Brunswick, VIC.