Restaurants & Bars

Vietnam report -- not Vietnamese food (longish)

foodfirst | Jan 23, 200306:24 AM

I know everyone who visits Vietnam wants to eat Vietnamese, but sometimes you just want a break, or to kick back at a "nice" place with a bottle of wine ... esp. if you've been travelling in the region for a while.
In HCMC, Bibi's is a familiar, comfortable-feeling French bistro-type place. Grilled duck breast was done perfectly, still slightly pink as requested, and served with lentils. Baked goat cheese salad (on mixed greens) was very lightly dressed (my preference), superb goat cheese. A delicious special of melon with jambon serrano ... only complaint would be that the ham was too thickly sliced.
Augustin is hit-and-miss. The pan-grilled steak with Roquefort sauce was out of this world and served on the rare side of med rare as requested. The tomato soup, which actually seems like gazpacho, needs pepper and vinegar but the basic flavor is fresh and deeply tomatoey. The nicoise salad is lovely, though I'd like more tomatoes. Pan-grilled steak with wine sauce suffers from the wine sauce ... the steak is quite OK.

In Nha Trang, the food at Bella Napoli reminds me of food I've eaten in very mom-and-pop places in Italy. You must order the special fish of the day 1 shift in advance, which we didn't know, so we settled for spaghetti with squid and tomatoes and pasta with fresh tuna, capers, tomatoes and olives. Both tasted of the sea and the freshest of ingredients. The caprese salad was, unfortunately not available ... Nha Trang is not HCMC. Simple, delicious food in a pleasant setting, just above the beach.

I really want to pitch for a relatively new place in Hanoi ... Gecko Bar in an old shophouse on Bao Khan just off of the road around the lake (old district). Cafe des Artes is just across the street and was packed but only 2 other tables were taken at Gecko Bar and this was a shame. The place is working out some kinks .... no "special daily fish" that day because they'd just moved the kitchen, no Lillet Blanc though it's on the menu, and no more of the white bordeaux we ordered and the French sauv blanc was just not good at all .... but the food is great and the chef is very on-the-scene. All pasta is freshly made. I had fettucine with clams in a white wine sauce which also turned out to have cream. I don't usually care for cream sauces but the freshness and vibrancy of the clams cut right through the cream, and the pasta was delicious. Husband's pan-sauteed sea bass fillets on a "bed" of tomatoes and black olives was nicely browned but moist, cooked just right, complemented by the acidic sauce. It made a lovely plate, accompanied by haricot verts and perfectly browned tiny potatoes. Chocolate mousse was possible the best I've ever had, in a sort of wedge rather than in a bowl. Intensely cocoa-y, just the right combo of substance and fluff. The chef offered it to us on the house to make up for what had gone wrong earlier in the evening. This is his first place though he's been cooking around the world for 20+ years and he obviously cares alot about it. I think if the place survives it will just get better and better as staff becomes more comfortable.

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