Hidden Hanoi Cooking Class
As we love Vietnamese food (especially The Slanted Door in San Francisco) we decided to take yet another cooking class…this time in Vietnam. This three-hour course, provided by Hidden Hanoi, the same company that we used to tour around Hanoi, had four of us cooking four different dishes for lunch. Fresh spring rolls with shrimp and pineapple (a very interesting change from the rather plain rolls we made previously); green papaya salad (one of the better ones we had); sour fish soup (only okay–probably because Tom was responsible for making the soup…not really Tom’s fault but he’s the one that wrote this sentence in); and sweet and sour shrimp with tomato sauce (also very good–probably because Joyce made it..again, Tom wrote this). We followed up with pomelo and mango which we dipped in an interesting mixture of salt and chili powder.
Although the class was well organized and fun, it had somewhat less educational value than some of our other cooking classes. One reason is that while we did a lot of the prep, the instructor’s assistants pulled some of the ingredients together and cooked them. Another, is that since we were each working on our own dishes, we didn’t have much chance to see, much less experience, how to prepare the other dishes ourselves. While it wasn’t our favorite cooking class, it was interesting, and we had some very good food. Of course, we also now have the receipts too and may inflict them on our next dinner guests.
Our restaurants focused on Vietnamese food. Quelle Surprise. They are listed in generally declining order, from the one we enjoyed most to the ones we enjoyed least. What’s interesting is that the most expensive restaurants were our least favorite ones.
- Quan An Ngon is as much an experience as it is a restaurant. A covered outdoor space surrounded by lights with the inside consisting of a large center space filled with tables (each of which was filled with people) surrounded by perhaps 20 food stations, each of which specializes in a different type of dish. Each station has a table in front, with ingredients and visual samples of finished dishes, and preparation stoves and grills behind. We tried six different dishes and our first and only bottle of Vietnamese wine. As for the food, the grilled oysters with spring onions and steamed clams with lemongrass were both very good. The fried frog legs were good, Although the breading was a bit heavy. The most interesting dish was the Hanoi Crispy Shrimp pancake. The pancake was like a giant crepe with a shrimps mixture in one section. Our server cut the pancake into six pieces and wrapped them, along with a sprig of mint and a leaf that they called cabbage (but was more like a tasty leaf from a small tree) in rice paper, which we dipped into a sweet and sour sauce. Wonderful. We did, however, have two disappointments. The steamed snails with lemongrass had little taste, even when dipped in a ginger fish sauce. Then there was the Vietnamese wine: the Vang Do Da Lat Red, which, according to the label was made from a combination of cardinal grapes and mulberry fruits. It was very light, low in alcohol (12%) and tasted more like grape juice than wine. Although we didn’t expect much, at $13, we treated it as a throwaway bottle and an interesting, not to be repeated, experiment
- Highway 4, another, albeit improbably named, winner. Four dishes, each of which we fully enjoyed. We began with shrimp and basil wrapped in rice noodles (a stripped down variation of a shrimp spring rolls) and small ocean clams with basil in a light oyster sauce. These were followed by crunchy (I.e., fried) fish with passion fruit sauce and what they called spicy satay-drilled frog legs. While the frog legs came our fried, the breeding was delicate, spicing. Was perfect and dish–like the other three–was delicious. We understand they have multiple locations in Hanoi. We ate at the one in the Old Quarter.
- Essence Cafe, was in the hotel at which we stayed, and was where we ate our first evening, after a late flight into the city. We were skeptical of a hotel café, but thoroughly enjoying their fresh (not fried) spring rolls and their delicious king prawns in tamarind sauce (we became hooked on tamarind sauce early on this trip to Southeast Asia).Although neither dish really stretches the creativity of the chef, we loved both and hope to find a chance to return to the restaurant (in other words, after trying as many other highly recommended and attractive alternatives we can find).
- KOTO, a non-profit restaurant that “teaches disadvantaged youths hospitality, English and life skills” also serves good food. We had three dishes:spring rolls with prawns and mango, five spice roasted duck on potato and mushroom cake with mango chutney, and cha ca fish cake which the customer wraps in rice paper with pineapple, cucumber, fresh herbs and peanuts, and dips in a citrus sauce. All were quite good (although the duck could have been less well done) and the service (wine service notwithstanding as the students didn’t have much experience opening wine bottles) was relatively professional.
- Cha Ca Thang Long is a Hanoi original, offering only one single dish, a centuries-old Hanoi specialty called Cha Ca. It consists of cubes of mudfish (typically catfish) that is marinated in a turmeric-based shrimp sauce and lightly grilled in a banana leaf. The fish is pan-fried at your table with a a mix of vegetables and herbs, such as dill, coriander and green onion. When it is done, put it atop some vermicelli noodles, add basil, peanuts, fish sauce and chilies to taste and go at it. Not a very complex dish, but very tasty.
- Green Mango. This was not really a fair comparison since we had only appetizers at this restaurants. The chicken lettuce cups (minced chicken and shiitake mushrooms with Hoisan sauce and ginger scallion was pretty standard and pretty good. The more interesting and successful dishes were different interpretations of spring rolls. The first provided seafood and vegetable versions (fresh mango prawn, daikon sesame and vegetarian and fried seafood). The mango prawn with its citrus sauce and seafood with horseradish sauce were the most interesting. The third dish consisted of a selection of fresh meat spring rolls. We particularly enjoyed the smoked duck and oven roasted lamb, and somewhat less, the wok stir-fried beef and the pork. While they came with a choice of the sauces (strawberry, tomato and chili and yogurt garlic), we enjoyed the strawberry with all. Generally good appetizers that showed the chef’s creativity, but didn’t demonstrate his flavor combinations and not his technique.
- Madame Hien, where we had, but did not particularly enjoy two dishes: Pho noodles with kailan, mushroom, egg, prawn and beef; and rolled rice pancake with pork and mushroom. Even a potent glass of Vietnamese rice wine didn’t help us enjoy the food.
- Green Tangerine, a highly regarded, high-priced restaurant, was the biggest disappointment of our visit. Not because it was the worse food, but that it was totally nondescript in a restaurant that charges dearly for the honor of dining there. We shared one standalone entree: king prawns with mango and rum sauce, carrot cake and Hanoi-style green mango salad, and then a multi-course dinner that allowed us to sample many different dishes. Appetizers consisted of fried spring rolls and shrimp fritters. Entrees were stir- fried beef with pineapple and perfumed rice and Ca Qua fish in tamarind sauce. Desert was flamed banana with coconut ice cream. Certainly not worth the money we spent…the most expensive dinner with the least imaginative food.
On our last trip to Hanoi, we stayed at the beautiful and elegant Sofitel Metropole hotel in the French Quarter. While we would have loved to stay there again, the rates were now in the nose-bleed range. Plus we wanted to stay closer to the Old Quarter. The Essence Hotel met our criteria. And because we booked the hotel directly, we had free laundry service and a free mini bar that was replenished each day. While the snicker’s bars and potato chips can be deadly to the waist, they sure were good! The room was very clean and comfortable. The only strange thing was the way the bathtub was enclosed by a glass partition, that left a 2 inch gap between the tub/shower area and the room. It was a magnet for water from the shower head. Plus the shower would not hold a constant water temperature. Still, don’t that let dissuade you from staying here. The staff was incredible. They even escorted Joyce to a hair salon a few blocks away and helped her explain what she wanted done. And they escorted Tom to a pharmacy to help him buy bandages. Plus, they hit 100% on all of their recommendations for restaurants. No, it is not the Sofitel, but you won’t get the personal touch at the Sofitel that you get here. So go to the Sofitel to pay lots of money for a drink, but stay at the Essence hotel.