Being an unashamed food geek, I spent much of my time in Vietnam interrogating the locals about their native cuisine. However, even food geeks need a rest, so when my colleagues took me out for one last dinner, I decided to give them a break. The thing is, though, they had become so accustomed to my questions that they volunteered information anyway. Which is why I can tell you that Đán Ngọc is a restaurant famous for its crispy pigeon (or squab, if you're going to be posh) amongst other dishes from northern Vietnam.
Rather alarmingly, the pigeon was described as 'dove' in the menu (another restaurant I went to listed its duck dishes as swan) but I was assured it was pigeon. I quickly understood why punters flock to Đán Ngọc for this dish, as the bird was juicy and tender on the inside, yet crispy on the outside. Dipped in seasoned salt and lime juice, this was as good as the Cantonese version of this dish I had last year in Guangzhou – high praise indeed.
Another dish that's common to both Cantonese and Vietnamese kitchens is deep-fried cuttlefish cakes. The main difference between the two versions is in the texture, as the Vietnamese version includes chewy bits of tentacle in the mix.
One bonus about eating in Vietnam is that one can eat very healthily without realising it in the form of dishes like chicken salad with banana blossom, beansprouts and herbs, and sesame beef with pineapple, young banana slices and herbs wrapped in rice paper.
And last but not least, we ordered the house special noodle dish that I nicknamed Hawaiian meatball bún in homage to its pineapple and tomato soup. This may sound dodgy but the sweet and sour taste worked really well with the homemade herby pork meatballs and bún (rice vermicelli). This was a fine end to a great meal.
Without sounding too lachrymose, this little corner of northern Vietnam reminded me of my native north of England in that Đán Ngọc is a homely joint with few airs and graces. It's the kind of place where people kick off their heels, relax and enjoy themselves rather than it being the place to be seen. And one last northern touch was that the waiters all wore zipped up tracksuit tops, just like Liam Gallagher circa 1995!
Đán Ngọc, 23 Phan Chu Trinh, Hanoi, Vietnam