Updated  
October, 10 2012 16:39:00

Hue to go in Ha Noi – dishes fit for a king

One can't help being impressed by the simplicity of Hue food, the recipes of which have been handed down since the days of the emperors. In HaNoi, there's a restaurant which specialises in cuisine from the old capital, as Elisabeth Rosen discovers.

Savoury: Banh nam, folded elegantly in banana leaves, offer a taste of Hue-style refinement.
Appetising: Nem lui, or make-your-own spring rolls, features grilled pork on aromatic lemongrass skewers.

Net Hue

Address: 204B Hang Bong; 36C Mai Hac De; 127 Lang Ha

Tel: 04.39381795

Price Range: VND30,000-50,000

Comment: Small plates of Hue-style street food, elegantly presented. Dishes to try: banh nam (glutinous rice with minced shrimp steamed in a banana leaf), nem lui (grilled pork spring rolls), bun thit nuong (rice vermicelli with grilled pork, peanuts and herbs)

For a dish descended from the refined meals served to emperors, bun bo Hue is remarkably audacious.

Cooks in the imperial capital ladle out a dark, spicy broth, flushed red and loaded with lemongrass: the darker sibling, if you will, of pho bo.

But things are different up North. At Net Hue, a three-story restaurant hidden in a narrow space on Food Street, that spiciness is conspicuously absent. Instead, the bun bo (VND35,000 or US$1.7) is so delicate it's practically pho: a clear broth, with scant traces of lemongrass and no hint of the chili pepper that characterizes the dish in its hometown. The rest, however, is the same. Just as in Hue, thick, slippery rice noodles share the generous bowl with tender slices of beef shank and chunks of congealed pig's blood.

It's a bit disappointing that Net Hue changes the dish so significantly, although in Viet Nam, where regional taste preferences are particularly fierce, it's understandable why a chef might feel compelled to alter traditional dishes for Ha Noi palates. And for the most part, the dishes here are remarkably authentic. The restaurant, which opened in 2010, aims to recreate the street food of the imperial city. Dishes one would normally have to go from restaurant to restaurant to eat are served here in a wood-paneled room with simple, elegant timbered furniture that recalls the architecture of the ancient capital.

Apparently the emperors were finicky eaters, so Hue cuisine favours elegant presentations. At Net Hue, just as in the imperial capital, dishes are served in tiny, elaborately designed portions that intrigue rather than satiate. Banh ram it nhan tom (VND32,000 or $1.6 for five) feels more like a snack than solid food: chewy balls of glutinous rice wrapped around bits of pungent shrimp and served on round crackers, laid out demurely on a wooden tray. One can easily imagine the emperor nibbling away on these while waiting for the next dish – perhaps banh nam (VND36,000 or $1.7 for six), in which glutinous rice and shrimp paste are smashed into a banana leaf and steamed into a soft, sticky filling one scrapes out with chopsticks. Mild and sweet, with vague hints of chili, the dish feels both light and indulgent.

On the other hand, the emperor could hardly be blamed if he wanted to skip straight to the grilled meat. This is the most exciting part of the menu, filled with the region's most popular street food dishes. Nem lui (VND48,000 or $2.3) comes out just as it would on a Hue sidewalk: charred pork grilled on long sticks of lemongrass, placed alongside an array of toppings. Perhaps the emperor would have a servant wrap it for him in a sheet of rice paper, but diners at Net Hue can do this on their own, adding handfuls of crunchy slivered vegetables for contrast. And a bowl of peanut-dusted rice vermicelli topped with that same grilled pork, interspersed with crisp shreds of lettuce and herbs (bun thit nuong, VND30,000 or $1.5) lasted barely a minute at our table before it was demolished by several pairs of chopsticks.

 

Look for the sign: Net Hue is hidden away in a narrow building on Food Street. — VNS Photos Truong Vi
 

There is much to be said for delicacy and refinement. For one thing, it leaves room for dessert. One would have to eat the entire contents of the menu several times over to be too full for che, of which che chuoi (VND15,000 or $0.7), caramelized banana in a rich broth of coconut milk laced with bits of ice and tapioca, may be the most successful.

But in the end, the best dishes are those with the most assertive flavors. The lively array of grilled meat dishes reveals that the chef isn't afraid to use a bold hand with spices. Bun bo Hue shouldn't be left out of the excitement. — VNS

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