This is an article I found in The New York Times, published on February 5, 2006 by Matt Gross
“CÁ KHO” is one of those Vietnamese dishes that is so simple to prepare that it poses a challenge to chefs who want to make it uniquely their own. After all, it’s just fish braised in a clay pot. But therein lies the challenge: What kind of fish? How sweet, how salty, how runny should the caramel-and-fish-sauce braising liquid be? How much black pepper is too much? It’s a debate that has as many wrong answers as right ones, and that, as far as I’m concerned, rarely yields a dish that could ever be called memorable.
Which is why, on a recent visit to Hanoi — my first since 1997 — I was amazed to taste a ca kho that refused to fade into the background. The fish was soft and actually fish-flavored, and the braising liquid had a depth and richness that had me drizzling sticky russet juices over my rice bowl all night. I can’t make any claim to encyclopedic knowledge of ca kho in Vietnam, but it was the best I’d eaten in a long, long time.
My delight was compounded by surprise, for I was in Hanoi, a 996-year-old city where cooks, in my experience, like to take the rich variety of southern Vietnamese cuisine — a rainbow of fruits, untranslatable herbs, and sea creatures of every imaginable shape — and strip it down to a bland menu of broken rice and boiled meat. Then, with utterly misplaced pride, they declare it Vietnam’s true national cuisine.
But my surprise was caused as much by a second factor: I was eating in a fancy restaurant — Wild Rice, a renovated French villa with white tablecloths, a big fireplace, minimalist paintings and a substantial wine list — and fancy restaurants in Vietnam have a reputation for taking the cuisine down a further notch, substituting delicate lacquerware place settings for the ingredients (fish sauce, ginger, sugar, chilis, black pepper) needed to make Vietnamese food taste like, well, Vietnamese food.
All that, you may have guessed, is starting to change.
“Restaurants are opening all the time in Hanoi, more and more with a focus on modern design, delicious food and excellent staff,” Kate Henry, one of the forces behind the Hanoi food blog Sticky Rice, told me in an e-mail message before I arrived. (She and her blogging partner, Mark Lowerson, had already convinced me of this with their food-porn photos and descriptions of dishes like a chicken with spicy sesame sauce, “grilled handsomely, barbequed edges contrasting with shiny specks of red capiscum and the seeds.”)
“Being from Sydney,” Ms. Henry said, “I think that some of these definitely could compete with restaurants there.”
The Hanoi restaurant scene has something for every palate. For traditionalists, there’s Wild Rice. For ambitious French-inspired food, Green Tangerine and its quaint, tile-lined courtyard. For modern Vietnamese fusion, Wild Lotus. There’s the Metropole Hotel’s mad scientist, Didier Corlou, busy deconstructing classic Vietnamese food; and there’s straight-up New York-style restaurant food (at nearly New York-style prices) at Vine. And then there’s Bobby Chinn.
Bobby and I met in Ho Chi Minh City in 1996, when he had just opened a California-style restaurant known as Saigon Joe’s, where expatriate account executives from Saatchi and Ogilvy would lunch on yellowfin tuna and wasabi mashed potatoes. Meanwhile, upstairs in the kitchen, Bobby, a New Zealand-born, British-educated American of Chinese and Egyptian descent, would be singing, dancing, doing impressions, and generally freaking out his Vietnamese staff. Saigon Joe’s was, however, short-lived — there was, let’s say, a dispute between Bobby and his Vietnamese partner — and Bobby moved north.
Saigon’s loss was Hanoi’s gain.
“There was no scene,” he told me over lunch at Quan Nem, a chaotic storefront serving yummy Hue-style crab spring rolls — which Bobby, on a fast for Ramadan, wouldn’t touch. “There were literally restaurants that had opened that were all empty. They were importing products from France and it was too expensive and the market could not really accept prices like that.”
Perhaps that shouldn’t be too surprising. Vietnam had, after all, only just emerged from decades of isolation during which food shortages were a frequent fact of life. And in 1997, only a couple of years after the communist country opened up to the West, the Asian economic crisis hit, sending thousands of foreigners home and robbing the better restaurants of their clienteles.
It was in this postcrisis Hanoi that Bobby ran a series of kitchens — at Miró, the American Club and the Red Onion Bistro — and brought to a new audience his playful brand of cooking (I remember a Miró amuse-bouche of fluorescent borscht served in a quail egg — with a straw). In 2000, he opened Restaurant Bobby Chinn, a dark, romantic space hung with yellow silks and contemporary Vietnamese paintings. The menu mixes serious cooking — truffle crab espresso, blackened barramundi — with Bobby’s natural goofiness. For $2, the menu claims, “We tell you that ‘you are beautiful’ all night long.”
But over the last nine years, Bobby has done more than feed funny food to homesick expatriates; he has also trained a new generation of chefs. “Beforehand, nobody knew how to cook,” he said. “I remember, you developed a crowd when they said, ‘What’s he doing to the potatoes?’ Making mashed potatoes was revolutionary here.”
Now, he said, “they call me the Bobby Chinn Cooking School.”
Without Bobby Chinn (or Didier Corlou, the chef at the Metropole since 1993), it’s hard to imagine a restaurant like Green Tangerine. In a renovated house in the Old Quarter, its French chef, Benjamin Rascalou, is running wild, making a mackerel mille-feuille with la lot (like grape leaves, but less bitter), and serving frozen yogurt with red tuna carpaccio. Not everything is successful, but this sort of experimentation goes a long way in a city that once seemed beholden to boring food.
Likewise, without Bobby’s or Didier’s example, there might be no Wild Lotus, whose second-floor dining room — a high-ceilinged space with pale walls adorned with faint lotus paintings — may be the grandest in Hanoi. The scope of the menu is on the same scale, stretching across Indochina (and beyond) to offer fish tikka in pandanus leaves, Peking-style duck rolls and a crisp green-papaya salad that was the best I’ve tasted outside Thailand. Sticky Rice is not exaggerating when it calls Wild Lotus “a sublime aesthetic and gastronomic trip” — all the more amazing for a restaurant that, like its sibling Wild Rice, is owned and run by Vietnamese, not foreigners.
Nouveau riche Vietnamese are also a growing force among customers as well. “There’s a new wave, a new income bracket,” Ms. Henry said. “And a sign of this wealth is to go out to restaurants.”
At Vine, the chef, Donald Berger, said the clientele is “only 30 percent Vietnamese, but they’re the biggest spenders.” A typical table might drop between $1,000 and $2,000, he said.
The north of Vietnam is also starting to supply haute ingredients for these restaurants. Didier gets milk from goat-herding families to turn into cheese, and incorporates into his dishes’ unusual spices — talauma, ambrette, and something he calls simple “minority spice” — gathered from the northern highlands.
Green Tangerine gets its honey from Sapa, a hill town 236 miles northwest of Hanoi, where a farm had been raising duck for meat and foie gras until the current bird flu scare led to a mass culling.
Still, the new cuisine of the north remains dependent on the produce of the south: The chefs order most of their fruits, vegetables, and seafood from Ho Chi Minh City, where the major suppliers are based.
“Forty years of war and oppression drove down the quality of ingredients; you weren’t supposed to be seen eating well,” said Mr. Berger, the chef at Vine, whose menu of “jet-fresh” Colorado rack of lamb and thick steaks depends more on imported ingredients than perhaps any other Hanoi restaurant. When Mr. Berger arrived in Hanoi in the summer of 1999, he said, “You couldn’t get a frozen strawberry.” A friend of his tried to import them once, he said: “He would sit at the airport and it’d melt.”
Likewise, service in Hanoi lags behind Ho Chi Minh City. Vine may have the longest wine list in town, but if you ask a waitress for her own personal recommendation, you might get a giggle and a “Sorry, I don’t drink” in response. And when I ate at Bobby Chinn’s, despite his hawklike oversight of the staff and repeated requests, no caviar arrived for my dinner companion’s smoked salmon.
At some restaurants, staff members outnumber customers, producing the opposite result. “It’s just this constant hovering,” Ms. Henry said.
All of which reminds you that you are, in fact, in Vietnam, not New York, Paris or Barcelona. Sometimes it can be maddening, but at other times it’s almost cute, as I discovered during my last meal in Hanoi.
Ms. Henry, two friends and I had decided to subject ourselves to the tasting menus at Spices Garden, Didier Corlou’s laboratory of Vietnamese cuisine at the 150-year-old Metropole hotel. We sat outside, in the humid courtyard, with the strains of traditional Vietnamese string instruments echoing out from the main dining room.
The courses soon began arriving, each reflecting Didier’s decade-long research into local cooking techniques and ingredients. First came a trio of soups, each identified by a signature herb (the rau ram, a sort of soapy leaf sometimes known as Vietnamese coriander, was my favorite), and a tamarind sorbet, and a fried “flower crab,” and grilled foie gras with lemongrass, ginger, and sautéed bitter cabbage, and on and on. Right around the time dessert arrived — a jelly of oranges dusted with bee’s pollen from Ba Vi Mountain — the four of us stopped eating for a moment: The music had changed, become jauntier and, especially in contrast to Didier’s thoroughly exotic creations, oddly familiar.
It was, I suddenly realized, “Oh Susanna.” And as corny as the song was, as déclassé and backward, it gave me hope: It meant that there really was room for improvement, and that if Hanoi’s restaurateurs could improve on what they’re doing now, then by the time the city hits the grand old age of 1,000, it will finally have some food it can be proud of.
WHERE TO EAT
Wild Rice (a k a. La Lua): 6 Ngo Thi Nham Street; (84-4) 943-8896; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Restaurant Bobby Chinn: 1 Ba Trieu Street; (84-4) 934-8577; bobbychinn.com.
Vine: 1A Xuan Dieu Street; (84-4) 719-8000; vine-group.com.
Wild Lotus: 55A Nguyen Du Street; (84-4) 943-9342; email@example.com.
Spices Garden: Metropole Hotel, 15 Ngo Quyen Street; (84-4) 826-6919.
Green Tangerine: 48 Hang Be Street; (84-4) 825-1286.
Moon River: Bac Cau, Ngoc Thuy Village, Gia Lam District, Hanoi; (84-4) 871-1658; firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHERE TO DRINK
Ly Club: 51 Ly Thai To Street; (84-4) 936-3069; email@example.com.
Mosaique: 23 Ngo Van So Street; (84-4) 822-6458.