Friday, September 23, 2011

Metro review - Hanoi

The following review of mine appeared in Metro, November 2010. You can read my review of Simon Gault's Fish in the latest issue, out Monday 26 September.

There’s a famous scene in I Love Lucy, where Lucy works at a conveyor belt, individually hand-wrapping chocolates as they go past. Things start out fine, but just as she’s getting cocky the conveyor belt starts moving faster and faster, until eventually the only way she can keep up is by desperately stuffing handfuls of chocolates into her mouth, hat and blouse.

I thought of this scene recently as I watched the staff at Cafe Hanoi try to deal with a mass influx of city workers looking for some dinner. Having arrived 15 minutes earlier, we’d enjoyed being lavished with attention, but as tables around us filled, the service began to falter.

Waiting times began to increase. Mystery dishes arrived and were taken away. Our waiter harrumphed. Behind the scenes, I imagined him having a Lucy-style meltdown — throwing crockery into the bin, stuffing unwanted food down his pants and guzzling mouthfuls of a vodka-heavy “Virgin” Mary he’d just served my pregnant girlfriend.

On our return trip, a quieter Friday lunch, the service was flawless. So let’s give Hanoi the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re working on improving their systems for busy nights. In fairness, they haven’t had much time to get up to speed, having apparently been busy from the day they opened in late August. The reason is the food: fresh, tasty, North Vietnamese-inspired dishes to share or, more likely, hog selfishly. 

Vietnamese food comes together on the plate rather than the stove, and Hanoi’s pho is a perfect example — not just literally, with the broth being poured over a bowlful of beef and noodles before your eyes, but in the way the judicious addition of fish sauce adds depth and interest to the gently flavoured soup. Like all good pho, this feels like a tonic as it goes down — frickin’ soup for the soul.
The cured pork skewers give you a chance to wrap your dinner up in uniquely Vietnamese fashion. An envelope of cos lettuce filled with hot pork, green banana, cucumber and chilli sauce tastes incredible and is good fun too. If you can’t convert a date after an interactive experience like that, then we can’t help you.

You’ll definitely want to try the open shrimp wontons, and probably the fresh summer rolls too, although the latter could use a big sticky sauce rather than the thin nuoc cham that comes with it. But the texture is just right — crunchy/soft being one of the contrasts which make Vietnamese cuisine so special. Order well and you’ll enjoy a good mix of hot/cold, spicy/cool and starchy/fresh.
It doesn’t all work — both the poached chicken and cabbage salads were so sweet they needed correction with fish sauce, and the five-spice powder used in the duck soup tasted like it came straight from school camp “ethnic night”.

The crème caramel wasn’t up to much either, but the other desserts are incredible — most notably the lime-curd ice cream with meringue and shortbread: a deconstructed lemon meringue pie which was breathtakingly good.

The wine list is first class, with a thoughtful local selection and plenty of Old World stuff too. I always enjoy seeing French whites outside the sparkling section, but especially in this case given the influence France has played on the local cuisine. I suppose they could have listed a couple of wines from Vietnam too, but I tried some of those when I was over there and they tasted like something a monk might use to lubricate the engine on his motorbike.

Hanoi does not accept bookings, a policy which is designed to serve the interests of the restaurant but may well be back­firing if the other night was any indication. So be prepared to buy a cocktail and sit at the bar, a spot which won’t be nearly so entertaining once they’ve got used to dealing with rush hour.