We were recommended to make Café Hanoi an essential dining destination when next in Auckland. One very critical restaurateur friend found the café to be one of the best finds in her recent eating experiences. We know she is a harsh critic, especially of her own food, which we consider delicious. So this recommendation was high praise indeed.
On entering the heritage building at Britomart, we were impressed with the airy simplicity of the layout, with plenty of room around the tables, of which many were next to windows with a bright and clear view to the outdoors. Indeed, there was a look and feel of the colonial French influence that is still seen in Vietnam, especially reminiscent of the Old Quarter of Hanoi. It is pleasing to see such timeless style seem very contemporary.
However it is the food that is stunning. New Zealand has come under the influence of all manner of Asian cuisines, but it is that of Vietnam that is a hit and is hot here now. The delicacy and precision of the flavours and presentation, along with the clean and distinctive purity, as well as detail that marks its difference to that of Vietnam’s neighbours. We asked the kitchen to select our dishes, and it was all exceptional in flavour, texture, balance; the combination perfectly harmonious and complete. Our shared plates gave us plenty of interest and wonderment.
The sweet pickled shrimp open wontons with tomato, dill and coriander were the perfect starters, the freshness and vinegary components countered by the sweet flesh and firm wonton base, giving flavour and activating the palate. Substance came in the form of the subtle summer rolls of braised pork and shrimp with fresh herbs. The cut of the dish negated any cloying nature from the meat and the roll. The most tender, melt-in-the-mouth squid I have ever had came in the form of the wok seared squid, tomato, leek, ginger and dill. Caramelization and char-grill flavours countered the salt and acidity in a sensational fashion. Almost as tender was the peppered soy shaking beef with red onion and watercress, the larger than bite-size chunky cuts of meat proving to be no hindrance at all. An Asian meal without pork belly is always lacking, and the hotpot of caramelized pork belly with morning glory was the richness and decadence to the meal, however for me, the floral vegetable just not sufficiently cleansing on the palate. It is customary to avoid desserts at most Asian eating establishments, this last course not a strength. However, the desserts at Hanoi are well-worth trying, especially the coconut crème caramel with a hot cinnamon doughnut, lime curd ice cream soft meringue and butter shortbread and home-made ice creams and sorbets.
The drinks list is extremely well composed. As should be the case in all class establishments, the non-alcoholic range is as strong as the alcoholic. A diverse range of juices and teas lead to a selection of cocktails designed to put you into the Hanoi frame of mind. The white wines emphasise aromatics or racy acidity and the reds soft textures and spices. Our choice was a Johanneshof Marlborough Gewurztraminer 2010, already a multi-gold and trophy winner. This was quite appropriate as the wine went gold again at the Royal Easter Show Wine Awards, at which we were involved.
The meal is not inexpensive, but considering the quality, offers real value. The tastes and textures are truly memorable. We recommended Café Hanoi to a group of wine judges at the show looking for a good place to eat the next evening. It was unanimously judged as outstanding and indeed a hit with them as it was for us.