Restaurateurs Push Hanoi Into the Future

January 8, 2008 at 12:45 pm (misc) (, , , , , , )

This is an article I found in The New York Times, published on February 5, 2006 by Matt Gross

Salmon tartar with wasabi tobiko from Restaurant Bobby Chinn.

“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.”)

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