Monday 23 April 2012

Northern Hospitality (Vietnamese Style)

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
(Tel: +84-4-3826-2472)

Wednesday 18 April 2012

A Taste of Vietnam

My meals in Vietnam didn't just consist of noodles and Huế-style small plates, so in this post, I'm going to share with you some of my other favourites. Not all of these dishes are readily available in the UK, so do shout out if you spot them at your local Vietnamese eatery.

Bánh cuốn
I'm one of those tiresome inverted food snobs who prefer street food to fayn daynin. This isn't just posturing on my part. For instance, I'd like to see a Michelin-starred chef rustle up anything that looks and tastes as good as bánh cuốn. These steamed rice noodle rolls are filled with finely ground pork and wood ear mushroom, and topped with fried shallots. There are some similarities to Cantonese cheung fun but bánh cuốn is smaller and more delicate. Moreover, it's served with a bowl of nước chấm (fish sauce based dip) with giò lụa (Vietnamese sausage) rather than a sweet soy based sauce.

Table for 4
Lots of other stuff is served with bánh cuốn such as chillies, lime, ginger and various herbs. I didn't have a clue what to do, but the locals came to my rescue. One fellow diner picked off some of the herbs and added them to my plate, while another pointed at the bowl of chillies then at my bowl of nước chấm. Tutorial over, I quickly devoured my breakfast, whereupon the stallholder and the other diners gave me a collective thumbs up. The feeling was mutual.

If you want to track down this particular bánh cuốn stall, it can be found in the side streets round the back of the Hotel de L'Opera in Hanoi. Closer to home, Café East in Surrey Quays also serves this dish.

Cơm hến
Cơm hến was the first dish that made me go 'wow' on this particular visit to Vietnam. It's a bit of a theatrical dish, as it comes in four bowls and is prepared at the table. The main bowl consists of rice topped with baby clams, crispy pork rinds, peanuts, sesame, greens and herbs. Some sauce (I have no idea what) is mixed into the rice before a bowl of clam soup is added. After a big old stir, the cơm hến is portioned up into individual bowls. Oh, and it comes with a small bowl of (optional) chilli sauce, too.

I just loved the contrasting flavours and textures of this dish: briny, crispy, crunchy, soft and herby all in the same mouthful. My tip is to eat cơm hến relatively quickly because 1) you don't want the crispy pork rinds to soften too much, and 2) you might score seconds if you finish first. There's also a version of this dish served with rice vermicelli in place of the rice called bún hến. Both dishes originate from Huế, and are widely available in restaurants that specialise in the exquisite cuisine of that city.

Bánh căn cooker
On previous trips to Vietnam, I've tried pancake-style dishes such as bánh xèo, but I've never tried bánh căn before. These mini-pancakes, made out of egg, water and rice flour, are cooked in tiny clay dishes over charcoal.

Bánh căn
On their own, they're pretty plain but flavour comes from wrapping the bánh căn with herbs in lettuce, then dipping the wrap in one of the sauces on the side. My favourite sauce was the chilli to which unripe julienned mango was added to give it a slightly sour tang.

Bánh mì is taking London by storm at the moment, although this means that the likes of EAT and Pret are getting in on the act. Obviously, you should steer clear of these chain impostors, and instead pay a visit to the likes of Bánhmì11 and City Càphê to sample these Vietnamese baguettes.

Bánh mì
Anyway, public service announcement over, back in Hanoi, I bought a random breakfast bánh mì filled with freshly made omelette, fried marinated pork, salad, pickles, herbs and some pork floss. The baguette was super light and airy, but what I loved about it most was the addictive pork floss. Is there anything that pork floss doesn't improve?

The seafood
The Japanese call it shabu-shabu; it's known as huo guo in Mandarin; while the Cantonese call it daa bin lou; and in English it's variously known as steamboat and hot pot. I'm not sure what the Vietnamese call it, but cooking food in a bubbling pot of broth is always a winner in my eyes. So I was madly excited when I was taken out for a seafood hotpot.

The hotpot
It didn't disappoint, as a varied mix of seafood (and some token water spinach) was added to a tom yum-esque hot and sour broth (if anything it was even more sweat inducing than the famous Thai soup). And there were noodles too, but instead of bunging the bún (rice vermicelli) in the pot, clumps of bún were put in a bowl, and soup was ladled over it.

Phở cuốn
There are a multitude of cuốn or rolls in Vietnamese cuisine, and it is easy to get them mixed up. So when I suggested that the pictured phở cuốn were similar to cuốn Huế, my hosts immediately set me straight! I was told, in no uncertain terms, that the various rolls each have their own characteristics with different skins, fillings and dips.

In this case, phở cuốn is made with a rice noodle sheet that can also be used to make phở noodles, and the filling consists of beef, greens and herbs. I liked these, but not as much as the more delicate bánh cuốn or the ubiquitous gỏi cuốn (summer rolls).

And so ends my round-up of my favourite (non-noodle) dishes of Vietnam. But what about you guys out there? Did I miss out your favourite? And what about your favourite places in Vietnam? I'd love to hear from you.

Friday 13 April 2012

The Only Way Is Huế

Given that Vietnam has a population of over 90 million, and stretches over 1,600 kilometres from north to south, it should come as no surprise that there are many regional variations when it comes to its food. My favourite is the imperial cuisine from the old capital of Huế, which is characterised by delicate, beautifully presented dishes served in small portions. Now I know what you're thinking, but I expressly forbid anyone to describe this style of food as Vietnamese tapas!

Mixed Huế platter
I was taken to a couple of Huế restaurants during my trip, with my favourite being a place in Hanoi called Song Hương. As you can see from the photo of the mixed Huế platter, many Huế dishes are made with rice flour. Sadly, I'm not sure what they're all called, but they were all damn tasty.

Bánh bèo
Of the dishes I did find out the names of, my favourite was bánh bèo, a steamed rice flour cake topped with shredded shrimp, pork crackling and chilli. Fish sauce is liberally added to this dish, and it's eaten by carefully spooning it out of the saucer.

Grilled pork and pineapple wraps
Another great thing about Huế food is the D-I-Y aspect of it. Take these grilled pork and pineapple wraps (I can't remember the Vietnamese name) where the filling is wrapped first in lettuce then rice paper.

Cuốn Huế
There are many types of rolls in Huế cuisine with different fillings and dips. One of my favourites is cuốn Huế, steamed rice noodle rolls with a filling of pork, sour shrimps, herbs and other stuff that I can't remember (I was too busy eating to take proper notes). These went really well with the accompanying garlicky shrimp paste dip.

Cuốn diếp
Despite looking suspiciously like health food, I enjoyed the cuốn diếp. These mustard leaf rolls filled with bún (rice vermicelli), pork, prawn and various herbs might sound boring, but the peanutty dip on the side really brings them alive.

To finish off the meal, a special noodle hot pot was ordered (perhaps my hosts knew of my alter-ego). A portable stove with a steaming pot of soup, along with plates of marinated beef, banana blossom and bún (rice vermicelli) were brought to the table.

The beef and banana blossom were cooked in the galangal-infused soup before being ladled over waiting bowls of noodles. This dish was a more than fitting end to the best restaurant meal of my trip to Vietnam.

Now that I'm back home, I'm thinking it's such a shame that there isn't anywhere serving this style of food in London. Given the trend for both Vietnamese cuisine and 'small plates', I reckon a Huế restaurant would go down a storm in the capital. (This is a heavy hint to London's Vietnamese community!)

Song Hương, 4 Phan Hữu Ích, Ba Đình, Hanoi, Vietnam
(Tel: +84-4-3715-2887)

PS: Should you find yourself in Ho Chi Minh City then I strongly recommend visiting Phú Xuân, one of my favourite restaurants anywhere in the world. This is where I first tried Huế cuisine, but sadly it was closed for renovation during my recent visit.

Sunday 8 April 2012

The Good Noodles of Vietnam

Of the countless hole-in-the-wall pho joints in Hanoi, the one I really wanted to try was Phở Thinh. However, the cabbies at the hotel taxi rank had other ideas. I may be doing them a disservice, but I had my suspicions that the restaurant they wanted to take me to wouldn't be half as good, and would be at least twice as far away. After some remonstration, culminating in a threat to get the concierge involved, one of the sodding drivers agreed to take me to where I wanted to go.

phở sốt vang
I had calmed down by the time I arrived, and my mood was further lifted when I clapped eyes on the open kitchen at the front of the shop. I really can't think of a more welcoming sight than stacks of fresh pho rice noodles, baskets of herbs, various cuts of beef and a bubbling cauldron chock full of beef bones.

At the heart of the kitchen was a very assertive young woman who, in between barking orders to her assistant and the servers, rustled up bowl after bowl of noodles all seemingly from memory. Watching her assemble my order of phở sốt vang (beef stewed in wine w/pho rice noodles) was amazing. It was done so quickly that it arrived at the table before my beer.

phở sốt vang with quẩy
I loved everything about this bowl of noodles. The anise-scented broth pepped up with coriander, spring onion, chillies and a squirt of lime juice was well balanced; the slippery smooth broad rice noodles were just how I liked them; and the stewed beef in wine was nicely tender. I also ordered a side of fried dough sticks (Chinese-style you tiao known as quẩy in Vietnamese). These are more commonly added to congee, but work just as well with soup noodles.

The noodles at Phở Thinh were so good that part of me wanted to stay and try a different style of pho. On the other hand, my original plan was to go on and check out Bún Bò Nam Bộ, a restaurant eponymously named after its signature dish, which is what I did.

The making of bún bò nam bộ
Half-eaten bún bò nam bộ
And I'm glad I did, as I got to see the bún bò nam bộ made before my very eyes. I watched as the chef stir-fried some beef and beansprouts that she added to a waiting bowl of lettuce and bún (rice vermicelli). Some soup or sauce (I'm not sure what) was then ladled on top before the bowl was sprinkled with toppings of fried shallots, cucumber and crushed peanuts. I took my cues from other diners, and gave my bowl a big old stir before tucking in. This dish was so refreshing with its mixture of different flavours and textures.

I also had some great noodles in Ho Chi Minh City, where I would start the day with breakfast at Nam Giao. My first visit saw me try the bánh canh cua, a thickened soup with ground pork, crab meat and shrimps served with noodles made with a mix of rice flour and tapioca flour.

bánh canh cua
This dish seems to have Chinese influences in that the soup is similar to the Chinese-style thick soups while the texture of the chewy noodles is redolent of Chinese rice cakes (nian gao). The dish itself is quite mild, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, as it allowed to sweetness of the crab to shine through with the fresh coriander also giving it a bit of a lift. Indeed it was so soothing, I wish I had a proper hangover for it to cure!

bún bò Huế
The other dish I tried at Nam Giao was the spicy beef noodle classic: bún bò Huế. To be honest, it wasn't as spicy as I would have liked but adding some chilli rectified this. What I loved best about this dish, though, was the added pork knuckle, which is seldom seen in bún bò Huế outside Vietnam. Together with a slice of Vietnamese sausage and loads of herbs, this was another breakfast fit for a king.

I'd like to thank the good people at Bánhmì11 for recommending Phở Thinh, Bún Bò Nam Bộ and Nam Giao. The noodles at these joints were among the highlights of my trip to Vietnam.

1) Phở Thinh, 39 Tôn Đức Thắng, Hanoi, Vietnam
2) Bún Bò Nam Bộ, 67 Hàng Điếu, Hanoi, Vietnam
3) Nam Giao,136/15 Lê Thánh Tôn, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

phở bò @ Pho 24
I did try other noodle joints, but I'm not sure the places where I went are necessarily worth recommending. For instance, the phở bò (beef pho) at Pho 24 was decent enough, but being a chain restaurant, the atmosphere was slightly sterile and lacked the charm of the hole-in-the-wall joints. That said, it's a safe option with branches in Ho Chi Minh City and other Vietnamese cities including Hanoi. Pho 24 has also started to expand outside Vietnam, with restaurants opening in locations such as Hong Kong and Sydney.

bún riêu cua
On a previous visit to Vietnam, I fell in love with bún riêu cua – rice vermicelli in a soup with crab roe, tomatoes, chilli oil and a pungent shrimp paste. It wasn't as good this time round, which I put down to the place where I went being an all-rounder rather than a bún riêu cua specialist.

bún nem nướng
I also tried dishes such as bún nem nướng: a bowl of rice vermicelli topped with salad and BBQ ground pork skewers, served with nước mắm pha (fish sauce-based dressing). A similar dish is bún chả Hanoi, where rice vermicelli is added, a little at a time, to a bowl of grilled mini-pork patties and grilled pork in nước mắm pha. These were good, but I couldn't help but feel that there were better versions of these dishes out there.

And so ends my round-up of the good noodles of Vietnam. But what about you guys out there? Did I miss out your favourite Vietnamese noodle dish? And do you have a favourite noodle joint in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, or indeed elsewhere in Vietnam? I'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday 4 April 2012

Seventeen's New Noodle Lunch Menu

What's your dream job? Mine would probably be noodle development officer. I'm not sure if such a job exists, but I had a tantalising glimpse into what it might entail at Seventeen when I was invited to offer feedback on their new set lunch menu. A tough job, I know, but someone has to do it!

Hot & sour chicken soup noodles (test version)
Of the four varieties of soup noodles that I sampled, my favourite was the hot & sour chicken soup noodles. This Sichuan bruiser packed a punch not only with its spicy and sour flavours but also with its smoky tones and numbing ma-la heat. The medium gauge glass noodles (made from potato starch) had QQ bite and were eminently slurpable. I wasn't really that bothered about the shredded chicken, but to be honest, the protein is very much the supporting act in this dish.

Hot & sour chicken soup noodles (on-sale version)
The new lunch menu has since been launched, and I returned incognito as a paying customer to try the hot & sour chicken soup noodles. It was pretty much like the test version except it came with spring onion rather than coriander. I would have preferred the latter as a garnish, but that's a minor quibble, as this bowl of noodles is one that I would regularly eat if I worked in the vicinity of Notting Hill Gate.

Beef noodle soup
Dan dan noodles
Of the other dishes I tried during the initial tasting, I liked the beef noodle soup. It's not quite as good as the version at Mama Lan, but it was comforting and the hint of garlic was a nice touch. The dan dan noodles were technically OK, but I prefer the saucier spicier version of this dish as opposed to the soupy one liberally laced with peanuts and sesame paste that was on offer at Seventeen. The one disappointment was the wonton noodles, and management promised to go back to the drawing board to improve this dish. All of these dishes are on the new set lunch menu, but I'm not sure what, if any, changes have been made since I sampled them.

Seventeen's new set lunch menu is available Mon-Fri (12pm - 4pm) at £6.50 for a main and a side. At that kind of price, it's well worth ditching Notting Hill Gate's unholy trinity of Pret, Subway and EAT for a decent bowl of noodles at lunchtime.

Seventeen on Urbanspoon

Seventeen, 17 Notting Hill Gate, London, W11 3JQ (Tel: 020-7985-0006)
Nearest tube: Notting Hill Gate

This review is based on two separate visits, one complimentary, the other paid.

Sunday 1 April 2012

Greggs Café - A Guest Post by Siyue Yi-Tian 四月一天

Hi, my name is Siyue Yi-Tian (四月一天). I'm from Beijing and I'm a friend of Mr Noodles, who kindly invited me to write a guest post on his blog. As I am visiting the UK, I've decided to blog about British food from my Chinese perspective.

For a whole host of reasons, British cuisine can be quite hard to pin down. However, there can be no doubt that pies and pastries are quintessentially British, so I checked out two classics: sausage rolls and Cornish pasties.

I decided to play it safe, and visited one of the most famous bakers in Britain: Greggs, which I understand is owned by Gregg Wallace, the superstar MasterChef (and twitter-lothario). As I wanted this to be a special treat, I went to the flagship Greggs Café on Earl's Court Road.

I was surprised that there was no table service; maybe Wallace is going for a casual vibe? Or maybe it's because he wants to keep the profit margins high? Anyway, I ordered my food, and started with the sausage roll. I'm sad to report that it was very disappointing.

When us Chinese make pork dishes, we season the meat judiciously, add herbs such as chives, and maybe some water chestnuts to offer a contrast in taste and texture. In contrast, the British palate appears to lack such sophistication. The sausage meat was too finely minced, and what's more, all I could taste was white pepper. For the love of Confucius, is all British food this one-dimensional?

Things didn't get any better with the Cornish pasty. The filling was grey and dull, and while I may be just a humble conceptual artist from Beijing, even I know that peas and carrot don't belong in a Cornish pasty. All it needed was the addition of sweetcorn for it to have all three key ingredients of that classic late night British institution: the pavement pizza. Not even the milky tea could wash away the disappointment of my meal.

Now I know China is on the rise, and Britain is on the wane, but I had expected better of the homeland of Piers Morgan, Nick Clegg, Richard Hammond and Alan Partridge. I consider Wallace to be the equal of such luminaries, and I was frankly disappointed that his bakery was so lacklustre.

In conclusion, there is little evidence of the much-vaunted British food revolution based on my meal at Greggs. Instead, I came away with an understanding as to why obesity is such a problem in the United Kingdom (it's little wonder, George Osborne has put 20% FAT tax on pasties). With hindsight, I should've followed Mr Noodles' suggestion and gone to Brixton Village instead.

Update - I've since found out that Gregg Wallace's restaurant is called Gregg's Table and that it has no connection whatsoever with Greggs. Apologies are in order, as one sells badly executed dishes popular in 1970s Britain while the other is a high street chain of bakeries.

Siyue Yi-Tian (四月一天) is the founder of the April 1 Movement – a collective of like-minded souls who blog about art, culture and food in Beijing. The views and opinions expressed in this post are his own.