Upscale Dining in Hanoi
Based on our shortlist of restaurants worth visiting in Hanoi which had been highly recommended by friends of friends, fellow foodies, other food bloggers, in torn scraps of articles from magazines (especially airline inflight magazines) - we are that crazy about food - we zeroed in on Nam Phuong and Emperor Restaurant as the must-trys in our first sojourn to this city.At Nam Phuong, its Cold Appetizer is Vietnamese-style pork sausage cum ham, but Chinese-style presentation. Nice bite to the ham. Nothing much to shout about.
Personally, I preferred the presentation of the Grilled Beef in Bamboo Cylinder (bo nuong ong tre), which arrived at the table served in a bamboo cylinder with side dishes of herbs and rice vermicelli and sheets of rice paper. Tender, well-marinaded with lemongrass, brown sugar and fish sauce (I think), serving the beef with the vermicelli and herbs in the form of a wrap with a dipping nuoc nam sauce, is like having a healthier version of the Bun Bo (grilled beef rice vermicelli) served on the streets. Not too bad at all.
The Grilled Shrimp Paste on Sugarcane (chao tom nuong), is quite a traditional local dish hailing from the old imperial capital of Hue. At the top right corner of the grilled shrimp paste is a mound of Lotus Stem Salad (goi ngo sen), which I liked very much. Hardly found in Singapore, the lotus stems have a crisp, crunchy succulent texture that lends itself very well to salads.
Pictured on the right is the Shrimp Salad with Banana Flower. I've said it once and I will say it again and again - when in Vietnam, you must savor their salads, fresh, flavorful and appetizing, I swear they are the only Asians (apart from the Thais, who unfortunately have a heavier hand when it comes to spicing up their salads) who can give the Westerners a run at the world championship for salads.Simmered Pork and Shrimp in Claypot (heo kho to voi tom), this is another local dish with multiple layers of flavors being discovered as you savor further, tender melting pork, sweet prawns, a touch of nuoc nam, a tad of spicy heat, silky layer of gravy but not too oily. Very appetizing with plain fluffy white rice.
Of all the salads we had in Hanoi, these two scored the highest in presentation and fared very well in the taste-test too. The first is the Emperor's rendition of the Banana Blossom Salad with Dried Beef, and if you're thinking of beef jerky or our local bak-kwa, you will be surprised as was I by the tender yet flavorful strips of beef (probably well-aged beef may be a better description).
The second below is the Grapefruit Salad (goi buoi), which is actually the Vietnamese local pomelo more sweet and less sour than the pomelos found in Singapore. Do you see the chopped roasted peanuts and mint, basil and laksa leaves in both salads? Standard ingredients in most Vietnamese salads.
The Grilled Beef in Betel Leaves (bo la lot) as shown in the pic below does not look great, but here, looks are truly deceiving. The ground marinaded ground beef mixture is wrapped and rolled in betel leaves (daun kaduk), threaded through bamboo skewers and grilled. Due to the marinade mixture, the ground beef is again meltingly tender and flavorful, complementing the unique, slightly spicy and pungent flavors of the betel leaves.
We also tried the Steamed Grouper with Chilli served in a banana leaf parcel, and Sauteed Tiger Prawns with Tamarind Sauce. Both dishes were quite okay but not outstanding or unusual and certainly did not warrant the high prices that we paid for them (each dish costing about US$7 to US$8).All in all, we did enjoy ourselves at both restaurants, and certainly would not mind dining at them again on future trips, as they represent the culinary wave in Vietnamese chic-style restaurants springing up all over Hanoi currently. For comfortable stylish ambience, good food prepared and served in style, these two places are worth a visit and especially if you have a business expense account (doesn't require an excessively generous one)!
19 Phan Chu Trinh, Hanoi, Vietnam
Tel: (84-4) 8240926
18b Le Thanh Tong Street
Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, Vietnam
Tel: (84-4) 8268801