Before flying into Hanoi, some of us did a bit of homework and we found it tough to plan our 'meals itinerary'! With so many recommendations for good local fare, from street-walks to high-end restaurants, it was extremely difficult to narrow down one's dining options, especially when we only had a couple of days in the city (this explains why we ended up sometimes having more than just 3 meals a day, to our guide's horror).
Our first restaurant target was WILD RICE at 6, Ngo Thi Nham Street, Hanoi [Tel: (84-4) 943-8896]. It is sited in a lovely colonial style building, with white walls and dark-framed window-shutters and doorways. Beautiful local Vietnamese art lined its walls and our dining room on the ground floor had a striking lighted long wall with bamboo artistically placed. Turn your head, and you see a lovely bamboo rock garden within a glass walled enclosure just next to the dining room. Contemporary eastern design, very easy on the senses. The menu - Vietnamese food with a delicate touch.
First up, Fresh Spring Rolls (neon chuon sang) filled with steamed fish pieces, rice noodles and fresh green herbs, each neatly strung together with a sprig of spring onion. The clean flavors of the rolls are perfectly accompanied by the 'nuoc nam cham' dipping sauce (fish sauce dip).
Next, we had a plate of Green Papaya and Prawn Salad (goi du du tom) - fresh tasting, lovely crunch from the chopped peanuts and shredded papaya tossed in a fish-based dressing that stirred the appetite for more to come. This salad I liked A LOT :)
Saute Prawns with Peanut and Tamarind Sauce (tom rang me) - a delicious seafood dish richly flavored with tamarind sauce with lots of fried minced garlic and chopped peanuts, which is not too different from our own local assam prawns save for the addition of fish sauce.
By the way, fish sauce to the Vietnamese is just like soya sauce to the Chinese - its presence felt in almost every other dish.
Pan-fried Eggplant with Peppered Fish Sauce, this dish is done quite well, with the right seasoning to match the sweetness from the eggplant. I don't generally like eggplants and the fact that I had second helpings say quite a lot for this humble vegetable.
The Grilled Tuna in Banana Leaves (ca thu nuong la chuoi) which came on a bed of grilled red peppers and eggplants was well-grilled - unfortunately, I was not particularly enthused as the grilled fish-steak was a tad drier than I thought it should be.
We also had BBQ Squid with Lemongrass and Chilli, which fared a little bit better, especially for those portions that had not been over-grilled.
The Pan-fried Beef with Coconut Milk Sauce, on the other hand, was tender and succulent on the inside but fried to a crisp on the outside. Already tasty by itself (due to it being well-seasoned), dipped into a fragrant yellow-colored coconut sauce, another dimension of this dish surfaces - well-balanced sweetness from both meat and coconut flavors. Verry nice!
And of course, no meal is truly complete until dessert is served. Young Baby Corn "Che", Young Sticky rice "Che", Grilled Banana with Yogurt and Orange Juice Sauce and Coconut Ice-Cream. The corn 'che' (like a thickened corn cream sweetened soup) is not too bad, with the taste of fresh corn. Overall though, Vietnamese desserts are really nothing much to shout about - better off ordering an extra plate of salad or rice rolls.
With a total of 9 dishes (which included 2 plates of salads and a plate of stir-fried vegetables), desserts and tea all around, dinner came up to about 910,000VND (approx. SGD91) - averaging about SGD15 per person. A little bit more expensive than your average street-food but the ambience is lovely, and the food quality and presentation a couple of notches higher (at least, we didn't discover any parts of insects in our dishes).
During our stay in Hanoi, we tried two other top-end Vietnamese restaurants (which I will share with you soon) but I will say for now, that our oohs and ahhs increased at the next restaurant and culminated in a crescendo at the last restaurant.