Seafood celebration in the heart of Ha Noi
Feast of fish: The Quán Ăn Ngon grilled seafood set, featuring oysters, clams, cuttlefish, shrimp and sweet snails, ready to welcome summer. — VNS Photo Peter Cowan
Located in the centre of the capital, Quán Ăn Ngon seeks to dispel any doubts over Viet Nam’s seafood with a sumptuous platter of the freshest fish in traditional surroundings. Peter Cowan reports.
“The seafood comes from all across the country, including central Viet Nam,” said Thu (not her real name), my host at the Quán Ăn Ngon restaurant on Hà Nội’s Phan Bội Châu Street.
My eyebrows shot skywards as my heart leapt into my mouth.
Stars of the show: Grilled oysters, featuring a succulent melt-in-the-mouth aroma of garlic. — VNS Photo Peter Cowan
This was a sentence that could strike terror into the heart of anyone with even a basic knowledge of Vietnamese news over the past year. Luckily for me, the only thing the seafood at Quán Ăn Ngon was polluted with was flavour and freshness, with Thu explaining that the seafood is brought to the restaurant alive and swimming via plane.
Of course I needn’t have worried, as there’s nothing fishy going on with the food at Quán Ăn Ngon. The chain of restaurants opened in 2005 and has gone from strength to strength since, becoming a favourite of both travellers and locals.
The brand’s popularity was easy to see looking around the spacious, traditionally-decorated restaurant, with bustling tables full of foreigners and Vietnamese alike sampling the vast menu.
Now it was Thu’s turn to raise her eyebrows, wondering why I had come alone to eat such a mountain of food. A mountain it certainly was, the grilled seafood set at her restaurant includes snout otter clams, shrimp, oysters, cuttlefish and sweet snails.
Priced at VNĐ550,000 the set is ideal for 2-4 people to share and is available as a special throughout the month of May, the chain’s attempt to greet the summer with seafood.
After explaining to Thu I was alone because most of my friends would be busy screaming at children, otherwise known as ’teaching’, I tucked in.
My first port of call was an oyster, a beautifully presented part of the meal, with each individual morsel garnished with flecks of greenery and garlic.
The mollusc was a deliciously light start to the meal, with a hint of garlic combining with the melt-in-your-mouth quality that the best oysters should have. More than a promising start, the oysters were the stars of this show.
Before I could dig into the cuttlefish, seasoned with chilli and salt, Thu insisted I try the radioactive green sauce. As a Brit more used to sausage rolls than scotch bonnets, something that looks so spicy tends to conjure up images of me and my unborn children’s mouth, nose, eyes and ears watering.
However, Thu said it was a must-try and ever the people pleaser, I dunked a piece of cuttlefish and prayed. As Del Boy says, he who dares wins, and I certainly felt like a winner after trying the sốt ớt xiêm xanh (green chilli sauce). While having a bit of a kick, the heat didn’t overwhelm the palate and was a delightful complement to the meaty fish.
Next up was maybe the only disappointment of the meal, the clams, and I say disappointment with the caveat that I’m no fan of clams at the best of times. They were also presented in a pleasing manner, but I found them a touch chewy, though the green chilli sauce was again a welcome companion, as was the side banana salad Thu had ordered, offering a sweet respite from the salty fish.
One of the most pleasant culinary surprises for a European in Asia is the size of the shrimp on offer, and I wasn’t disappointed at Quán Ăn Ngon. Size matters, of course, but flavour is also key and the full, lightly seasoned shrimp were decent, but dipping them in the green sauce took the flavour to another level, the spicy jolt playing delicately with the light crunch of the shrimp.
My final dip into the ocean of seafood on the table involved the sweet snails. After digging the critter out of its shell I got stuck into a somewhat bitter and underwhelming snack. However, the green chilli sauce again showed its class, with a bit of spice from the sauce bringing the snails’ sweetness out of their, metaphorical, shells.
Having made a decent dent in the platter, with Thu’s help, I was ready to relax and undo a few shirt buttons, but my host had other ideas. She gently insisted I try the chè sương sa hạt lựu (a Vietnamese jelly-based desert). Thu had yet to steer me wrong, so I happily agreed to give it a go.
The jelly, water chestnut, tapioca and pear dessert came in a tall glass filled with coconut milk and ice, and after a quick mix I was ready to wade in. The light, fresh and sweet dish was a perfect palate cleanser after the mass of seafood I had just gorged on, ensuring I finished my meal with the flavour of summer in my mouth.
With such a variety of seafood on offer in this grilled set coupled with the delightful green chilli dipping sauce, this is one mass fish death we can celebrate instead of mourn.
Quán Ăn Ngon
18 Phan Bội Châu Street, Hoàn Kiếm district
25T2 Trung Hoa Nhan Chinh, Cau Giay district
B2 R6 Vincom Royal City, 72 Nguyen Trai Street, Thanh Xuan district
Tel: 0903 246 963
Delivery: 7:00-10:00am and 3:00-5:00pm weekdays
Comment: Delicious Vietnamese in a fine setting