Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Hanoi Food Challenge #2 - The Recap

My Hanoi Food Challenge Number Two is finished! I visited a total of 19 new places in that week, which is two more than in Hanoi Food Challenge Number One!

 photo HanoiFoodChallengeButton.pngSo, here's my quick recap of all the places I went. As with last time, I'm separating them into places I would definitely go back to, those that are probably worth another try, and those that I'll probably only go to if dragged there for some special reason.

I'll definitely go back to:
1.  TET Décor Café (Day 1) - Beautiful, with good food. Actually I think there are already plans to go back this weekend with a faithful reader!

2. Bluebird Restaurant (Day 1) - With such delicious meals, I can't figure out why this place isn't busier. It looks crazy expensive from the outside, but is actually no more so than some other places on that street. Go!

3. Colonel Quy's (Day 2) - There aren't many places you can get a full English breakfast in Hanoi, and especially not while sitting in a quiet garden next to the lake. Totally worth it.

4. Hủ tíu noodles at 21 Hàng Điếu (Day 2) - Cheap, yummy noodles on the street. What more could you want?

5. Bud Mo (Day 3) - I'll probably go in the winter when I need some proper stodgy Ukrainian food, or whenever Jacqui drags me there to sit in the garden and drink Siberian Pine vodka!

6. Sushi Dai (Day 3) - Good value for money, decent food, and close to work. 'Nuf said.

7. The phở place on Kim Ma near work (Day 3) - Another good alternative for those days when I don't have food at home. 

8. Han Kook Kwan (Day 4) - A very promising replacement for our favourite old Korean restaurant!

9. Paolo & Chi (Day 5) - Tasty pizza, delivered to your door. So what if it costs a bit?

10. The 5th floor cafe at work (Day 5) - Not because it's that good, but because I can get food there without leaving the building on those days when it's pouring rain.

11. Thai Elephant (Day 6) - Pretty good Thai food in a city where good Thai is somewhat lacking. Yum.

12. Cutisun (Day 7) - Maybe not the best quality meat but it's cute inside, tasty, cheap and very close to home.

I'll maybe try again:
1. Chả cá on Giảng Võ (Day 4) - Fish that was yummy enough, but I probably won't go out of my way for it.

2. Cafe Nắng Sài Gòn (Day 5) - I think there's better bánh xèo to be had elsewhere, but I'll go when I have a craving at work, and I still need to try the Rock@Roll Lipton.

3. The Locals (Day 6) - Probably not to eat, but it's a cute place to sit inside and have a drink.

4. Bánh xèo Nhật Bản (Day 7) - Because I'm still not sure how I feel about okonomiyaki, so I might go try something else on the menu.

I'll skip:
1. Mỳ gà tần (Day 2) - Although the chicken in it was delicious, I didn't like the rest of it, so probably won't go there again.

2. Cafe Quang (Day 4) - A lovely setting on the lake near work, but I still prefer my bánh mì trứng lady on the other side of the lake.

3. Fresh Garden (Day 7) - Less than fresh, and I can make better cake myself. However, I did see some whole wheat bread there, which in a pinch might be worth a try.

All in all, I'd have to say that was a pretty successful week. My only regret is that I feel like I didn't hit the budget end of the scale very well, but maybe next time!

Yes, that's right, there's going to be a next time. Because out of 44 places on my list (ok, a few are question marks as to whether they are actually eligible for the challenge) I only hit nine. NINE. So I'll let you know when I do this again!

Monday, July 29, 2013

Hanoi Food Challenge #2 - Day Seven!

 photo HanoiFoodChallengeButton.pngThe final day of my Hanoi Food Challenge Number Two fell on a VERY rainy Sunday. Christine and I planned to ride our bikes around the lake to Daluva to try out the new menu there. The rain had died off for a while and it all looked promising as I set out, but by the time I got to our meeting point, it had started to rain again, and by the time Christine arrived a few minutes later it had increased enough that I was already considering other options. We decided to soldier on, but a few minutes down the road, it started to rain harder, and harder, and harder, until I just said nope. Not worth it. By the time we got there I would've been drenched and miserable, and I just didn't want to have lunch like that! I rode the few minutes back home, arriving here dripping wet and still hungry. 

After I dried off I attempted to order in, feeling horrendously bad about someone having to ride a motorbike through the rain to deliver to me, but the restaurant rejected my order because they didn't have one of the dishes I'd asked for. 

At this point, finally, the rain eased up again and I was still hungry with no prospect of food coming so I put my very soggy sandals back on and headed out to this Japanese Okonomiyaki place off Ngoc Ha that I've walked by several times and always wondered about. It's also on Nonna Chong's street food map of Hanoi, which you should definitely check out!

You may remember that I'm not much of a Japanese food connoisseur, so of course I had never had okonomiyaki before. In fact, I had no idea what this place would actually serve until earlier this week when a friend mentioned that she loves okonomiyaki, and explained to me what it was. Then I put two and two together and decided I had to try this!

This place is cute, with a little upstairs room that overlooks a small lake where they're building a temple.

There's more than okonomiyaki on the menu, with sushi and rice bowls also featuring! I had no idea what to order, but since I'd come for the pancake, I decided on the bánh xèo Osaka, since it seemed to be the classic one, and added on cheese from the list of toppings.

There's another side to this with all the sushi.

I'm not actually sure that I liked this. From one bite to the next I went back and forth between finding it delicious and disgusting. I think it was the chewy cheesy bits and the meat that I liked, but could've done without all the mayonnaise.

For 50,000 dong this is worth another try, or at least I'll go to the place and try something else. The menu had the word Aozora on it, and looked quite similar to the one at Sushi Aozora from my first Hanoi Food Challenge, so maybe it's part of the same company.

On my way home I had to stop for cake. Well, I didn't have to, but this Fresh Garden store just opened up the road from me. While I'm not a fan of Asian bakeries in general (there's a reason I make my own cakes!) and this is just a chain that's all over Hanoi, I've never actually been in a Fresh Garden store so I felt like it was my duty to try it.

 After I'd examined all the cakes I decided on this nice chocolatey, perhaps a bit Black Foresty looking one.

Then the girl told me that it was buy one, get one free. I really only wanted one, but I'm never one to say no to cake. So I got another, different one. Two pieces of cake for 25,000 dong. 

I ate the chocolate one, and it was ok but as I would have expected, it was a bit dry and the frosting was a bit plasticky tasting. A girl can only eat so much cake in a day, so the other one is still sitting in my fridge!

A couple of weeks ago I met a guy who lives very near me, down lane 173 off Hoang Hoa Tham. He asked me if I ever eat at Cutisun, the steak restaurant down the lane just across from that. I told him there was no restaurant down there, but he insisted. Well, he was right! I had no idea! I must have walked past this place hundreds of times, and never saw it. How is this possible?

I'd seen this sign before, up above the buildings, but for some reason had never figured out that it meant food! I think I never saw the restaurant because I most often walk past this lane going the other way, and mostly on the other side of the street, so it would've always been either at my back and/or across all the traffic.

Cutisun is super cute both inside and out!

Cute birdy placemat at Cutisun.

They had steaks on the menu for 65,000 dong, with either black pepper, bbq, or cheese sauce. There was also Shaking Beef, venison, and lamb! These all come with a few fries and a very small salad, and bread. The portions are not big, but for the price, what can you say?

Christine had the Shaking Beef and I couldn't resist trying the lamb. The waiter even asked us how we wanted it cooked! 

Shaking Beef (no sauce, just quite tasty, well-cooked beef!)

The salad had purple dressing on it, and we couldn't figure out what it was.

Lamb with BBQ sauce.

Lovely warm fresh bread.

Christine's was delicious. My lamb didn't taste much like lamb, but maybe that's because it was drowned in a very overpowering barbecue sauce. It was still tasty enough, after I scraped off most of the sauce. Next time I would ask for that on the side instead.

Because the portions were on the small side, we then had to have dessert!

Christine had the crème brûlée, which had the proper crunchy top, and she said was tasty but perhaps a bit more on the eggy side than the creamy side.

I had the mousse cake with chocolate syrup, which was almost more cheesecakey than moussey. Next time I'll try the passion fruit syrup instead.

Considering the price and that this is only a 5 minute walk from home, I'll definitely be back!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Hanoi Food Challenge #2 - Day Six

 photo HanoiFoodChallengeButton.pngThe storm that showed up Friday night left rain that just kept going, and going, and going. That meant that unlike last weekend, I wasn't going to ride my bike anywhere for the sixth day of my Hanoi Food Challenge Number Two, and didn't really feel like going too far from home. So, finally, it was time to try The Locals.

This place is about two minutes walk from where I live, and I'm going to confess now that I've actually been there before. Back in January, a couple of friends were visiting from Saigon and staying just down the road from me, so we went there for a bottle of wine before going out to dinner elsewhere. We liked the look of it, so, later in the week, when one of those friends was still around, we met there for dinner one night. 

At that time, there were only three main course items on the dinner menu; salmon, ribs, and something else that I can't remember. We ordered the salmon and ribs and shared them, and although the portions were quite small, the food was tasty. We also shared a dessert, which I think was chocolate mousse. The staff was friendly and helpful, and they said that they would be re-doing and expanding the menu very soon, so I said I would come back in a few weeks. I didn't.

Because I'd only been there the one time to eat, and they said they were re-doing the menu, I felt like this was a valid destination for my Hanoi Food Challenge. I think one of the reasons I hadn't been back is that there is a REALLY terrible review on the New Hanoian for it. I know full well to take such things with a grain of salt, but when faced with a decision between somewhere that has such a bad review, and somewhere else that has good ones, well, what would you choose?

There was no one in the place, as is normal just about every time I go by. The staff actually seemed quite surprised to see us. We sat outside on the covered patio, which has a view of the lake behind these bars they've put around the whole thing.

I don't know what happened when they re-did the menu, but now it doesn't seem to have much at all besides drinks, breakfast, soup and salad. Maybe I should've asked if there was another one for lunch and dinner items, but it was almost noon when we went so you'd think they would've given us that one too! 

The drink menu was pretty extensive, and the prices weren't too high, so I would maybe come back here for a nice shake or coffee or something, and maybe a snack. Even so, there are other places on the lake to have such things that actually have views of the lake instead of ugly bars.

Christine ordered the beef stew with red wine, otherwise known in Vietnam as bò sốt vang, and I ordered the french toast again. Christine's meal came at the same time as my mango smoothie, and was a bit on the small side. It also didn't appear to have any wine in it. However, she said it was tasty, if a little bit too fatty and salty. She was quite pleased that the bread was warm and crunchy.

 My french toast came a bit later and was made with a baguette rather than that horrible sliced white bread, although I would still prefer a nice whole wheat. It came with honey, and tasted ok. Nothing special, but nothing exceptionally good or bad about it.

When we finished our meal we sat there for ages, just talking and wondering if we were ever going to see a staff member again. Our dishes were still on the table, and no one came out to clear them or to see if we wanted anything else. We eventually made an effort and got someone's attention enough to pay the bill.

This place makes me sad. You can see from the photos that it's super cute inside, and I actually love the way it's decorated. It has a great location next to the lake, but they put those awful bars up, which block the view completely. The food could use some work, in choice, quality, and portion size, and the staff could use some lessons in service. There is SO much potential here, and it's being wasted. I guess I shouldn't criticize, because I don't know all that much about running a restaurant and I'm sure it's not an easy thing to do, but even I can see how it could be better. It's the kind of place that if I had time and enough experience behind me, I would want to take over and see what I could do with it.

The rain stopped in the afternoon so things had dried up a bit by dinnertime. Christine and I ventured out to Hai Bà Trưng district to go to Thai Elephant. There isn't much good Thai food in Hanoi, and an alternative to Hanoi Panic (now at Madake) in a different part of the city is welcome. This one was recommended to me by a friend, so I figured it had to be good!

The inside, as you'd expect, is decorated with nothing but elephants. Even the toothpick holder that came at the end of our meal was an elephant!

We ordered two starters; glass noodle salad with prawns and squid, and shrimp cakes.

The glass noodle salad was very tasty, although Christine thought perhaps it was a bit too much on the sweet side. I thought it was just fine, but maybe that's my sweet tooth showing itself!

The shrimp cakes were not entirely what we expected, but still very good. Pounded up shrimp coated in a crunchy breadcrumb mixture and dipped in a sweet & sour sauce was absolutely delicious.

We also ordered chicken with Thai basil and chili, and a green curry with prawns.

The chicken dish was a bit weird tasting. We decided in the end that the Thai basil wasn't actually that, but we don't know what it was. I still liked it enough to eat it, despite it not being what I'd expected, but Christine didn't like it at all!

The green curry was delicious. For some reason, no matter how hard I try, I cannot make a green curry like you get in Thailand, so it's often my measure of how good a Thai restaurant is. This one fit the bill perfectly. And the Thai basil in it was really Thai basil!

We finished our meal with some sticky rice with mango. This was good but I actually thought the sticky rice seemed a bit salty in a weird way that I cannot explain. 

Despite a few things that I maybe didn't quite like, I would definitely come back to Thai Elephant when I have a Thai food craving!

One more day! I bet you can't wait to see where I go on Day Seven!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Hanoi Food Challenge #2 - Day Five

 photo HanoiFoodChallengeButton.pngFriday was Day Five of my Hanoi Food Challenge Number Two, and I confess that on this day I feel like the project lost a bit of steam. I woke up from a deep sleep still feeling absolutely exhausted and have had a slightly scratchy throat and fuzzy feeling in my head for a couple of days, so I wasn't at my best and was finding it hard to muster enthusiasm for the whole thing.

When I left for work it seemed like it was going to start pouring down rain at any minute, and in fact was sprinkling a bit. I had planned to go out for a bowl of phở at another new place, but I walked into work and saw two friends who were about to go for breakfast at the cafe on the 5th floor of the building. The possibility of getting soaked outside convinced me I should just go with them.

The 5th floor cafe is not exactly a charming venue. A large, echoey, often smoky room with holes in the tablecloths and somewhat surly, incompetent staff doesn't really make for a super pleasant dining experience, but at least it's convenient and the food is alright.

Sara, about to enjoy some bánh mỳ que.

We all ordered bánh mỳ que , which is kind of a mini-baguette with pate stuffed inside. They have them pre-made, then heat them up in an oven when you order. Sara asked for two, and Jacqui and I each wanted three. They brought us six. After some discussion and throwing around of various numbers (the woman came up with nine, somehow) we finally got the last two! Drizzle chili sauce on and you've got a decent breakfast. They're cheap too, at 7,000 dong each.

By lunchtime the rain still hadn't come so Samantha and I headed out, with the intention of going to the street food place I'd had in mind on Wednesday when I got sidetracked by the Korean restaurant! We got there, and it was closed. Well, not entirely closed, but there certainly wasn't any food being produced. Across the street, however, was this place that I've walked by dozens of times. They had a sign outside advertising bánh xèo, which you might recall is one of my favourite Vietnamese dishes. 

We went in and started perusing the menu, which had several different kinds of bánh xèo, with mushrooms and/or cuttlefish or shrimp or pork. We settled on one with shrimp, pork, and green beans, and tried to order. There's something funny about bánh xèo here though, because the lady kept saying "two", and we weren't sure if she was trying to say that we had to order two, or if one bánh xèo was enough for two people. I really should learn more Vietnamese.

While we were waiting for our food, the lady at the kitchen right outside the window was looking at me and waving a piece of pork at me, and I couldn't figure out if she was making our food or trying to encourage me to order something different or what. The pork didn't look like the type that goes in bánh xèo, and it was weird to the point where I was looking behind me to see if she was actually trying to communicate with someone else!

Why is the kitchen outside? I don't know.
  We perused the menu a bit more, and discovered that it was one of those fun ones where several things are quite incomprehensible. 

Samantha's really enjoying reading the menu!

I found this page, full of "Lipton Tea - Especially". I wanted to try the "Lipton Rock@Roll" simply to see what it might be, but when I asked, the waitress went off to check, then came back and said "NO" and walked away. Not, "No, another?", just "NO". If I couldn't have that one, I would've really like to maybe try the "Lipton 3 milky" or the "Lipton Blue Sea", but no luck.

There was a commotion at the outside kitchen, and I looked out just in time to see our bánh xèo seemingly arrive from somewhere else. Where, I don't know! They chatted over it for a minute, then brought it in to us. I think the waitress had been trying to say that one bánh xèo is enough for two people, because we got TWO of them and it was enormous! 

They brought us all the accompaniments and we just sat there, staring at all this food. Wow.

I'm thinking it's possible that we've outdone ourselves here.

 It was delicious, but really, one would've been enough! And it's nice that there were so many fillings, but for me a lot of the charm of bánh xèo is in the crispy pancake part, and with all the stuff inside you don't get so much of that. But tasty nonetheless, and we made a pretty good dent in it.

We also considered ordering some Special Ice-cream such as the "Sweet Love Bracelet" or "Glass Sunshine", but we were too full. Maybe next time.

 As I said before, I was exhausted and just not feeling that great and by the end of the day I wanted nothing more than to go relax on my couch in front of a movie. So, instead of going to an Italian restaurant like Christine and I had planned, that's what I did. Last time I did my Hanoi Food Challenge, I determined that ordering in was fully within the rules, as long as I ordered from somewhere I'd never eaten before! 

One of the great things in Hanoi is that ordering in is SO easy. I remember in Korea, I'd call to order food, summon up my best Korean language skills, anticipate the questions they'd be asking me, and somehow struggle through it, crossing my fingers at the end that food would actually arrive, and that it'd be what I wanted. Not so here. On and vietnammm you can order from at least a hundred different restaurants online, from full menus in English, with anticipated delivery times, and pay in cash when it arrives. All without having to speak to anyone.

So, when I got home from work I got online and started considering menus. I finally settled on a pizza from Paolo & Chi, which seems to be delivery only. Without a real restaurant to go to, I didn't feel like I was taking away a possibility for a future Hanoi Food Challenge! 

I ordered a pepperoni pizza with fresh tomato and added mushrooms on too. The website said estimated delivery time for that restaurant was 45 mins, but as soon as I ordered, I got a text message telling me that it would be delivered in an hour. It came in 45 minutes. Yay!

It was delivered by a woman who may have been Chi herself, who spoke very good English and gave me a huge, shiny menu to keep at home. I wasn't sure I needed it, with those websites at my fingertips, but she insisted that I take it because it has a phone number I can call to order until 3am! 

I was quite happy with my pizza, as it had considerably more topping than Italian-style pizza I've ordered from other restaurants here. Also, it tasted pretty good and the crust was quite crunchy around the outside.

It was, however, a bit more expensive than other pizzas by the time I'd made it a large and added on mushrooms and a delivery charge. At 275,000, I probably won't be getting it often, but if I can't be bothered making my own I'll likely order from Paolo & Chi.

The rain finally came just after my pizza did, in the form of a thunderstorm with some lightning that must've been very close because the thunder was in the form of really loud BANGs instead of distant rolling. Glad I stayed in!

More tomorrow about Day Six!