Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Hoi An, The Shangri-la

In a nutshell: Vietnamese food with a flair and a smile
Score: 5/5
We’ve eaten at Hoi An numerous times and it never disappoints. As Dubai’s only Vietnamese restaurant, it offers a refreshing change from the proliferation of Chinese, Thai and Japanese restaurants. Vietnamese food is similar to Chinese food but is generally lighter as it’s not so deep-fried and dishes often include coconut milk, although they’re not spicy like Thai food. My sister lives in Vietnam so I’ve had the opportunity to eat the real mccoy – Simon’s and my best meal in Vietnam was actually in the town of Hoi An itself!

My Mum had read that for the month of June, Hoi An was offering an early-bird AED 99 set menu (although when you add in the cost of side orders, drinks and a bottle of wine it came to just under AED 200 per person - still very reasonable though). So we decided that would be the perfect place to take my Dad for Father’s Day. We had to order before 19:45 to be able to take advantage of the set menu but even though we were on the ‘budget’ scheme, we were still served with a welcome drink. It is a small touch that no other restaurant I’ve been to provides; a glass of non-alcoholic cocktail on arrival – a lovely start to a fabulous meal.

Hoi An’s décor is traditional Vietnamese with shutters on the windows and big fans gently stirring the air and the staff are dressed in the traditional flowing robes of Vietnam (Ao Dia). It is relatively small and pretty much all the tables were full during our meal. With only 3 staff to serve everyone, you would have expected slow service but this was not the case. The service was very slick and the ladies always had a smile on their face. It’s a testament to the quality of the staff and food that there were so many regular guests there – I lost track of the number of times a new arrival was welcomed by their name. I found the temperature of the room was perfect but both Simon and my Dad felt like they were melting towards the end and wanted to get out to the cool air of the lobby - perhaps it's a male thing!

There is a choice of 2 set menus and I couldn’t quite understand why as the starter was the same for both, I would have thought it was easier to have 1 menu with 6 main course options rather than 2 menus with 3 options each. In any case, the starter plate was a selection of 4 items: a Vietnamese spring roll, a fried spring roll, a lobster ravioli and a salt-&-pepper squid. Last time we ate here we had the full menu and I wanted to try all of the starters – and then found they offer a taster plate as a starter with a small amount of pretty much every item. Perfect.

Vietnamese spring rolls are so much more delicate than their Chinese counter-parts since the vegetables and chicken are wrapped in a rice paper pancake and it is not fried. I made them myself once but found 1. the pancakes from Choithram’s tasted quite dusty, 2. cutting the vegetables into tiny shreds was too much hard work and 3. dipping each hard pancake in hot water to soften it and then filling it with all the bits and pieces was also too much like hard work when I was hungry. Getting them perfectly made and ready to eat at Hoi An is by far my preferred way to eat them!

The main courses on the full menu are varied (last time I had fish cooked in banana leaves which was divine) but I found the options on the set menu were a bit too Chinese – sweet and sour prawns for example. I ordered the scallops which were perfectly cooked and absolutely delicious on a bed of fresh greens. Everyone else at the table had the prawns, which they all agreed were full of flavour.

I thought we had a choice of 2 desserts but it turns out you were supposed to have the dessert that went with the menu you’d chosen for the main course. I was served with a mango soup with coconut ice-cream, when I had been planning to order the crème brulée. Luckily my Dad swapped with me, although I could have eaten the soup I just didn’t fancy a cold dessert. Although it may seem that crème brulée is not very Vietnamese, Hoi An offer Vietnamese food with a French flair. Why? Vietnam was a French colony for many years so there remain a lot of French influences in Vietnamese cooking.

You may be wondering where the photos are now that I’ve figured out how to load them up. Sadly I forgot my camera!!


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