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Secret haven awaits adventurous eaters

Update: December, 25/2012 - 17:48

 

Talent and elegance: The restaurant serves up traditional food with eccentric flair. Small, shareable plates let diners sample everything from smoked goose breast to pig tail.

Ray Quan

Address: 8A Nguyen Khuyen (along the train tracks)

Tel.: 0913 578 588

Price Range: VND90,000 – 300,000

Comment: Traditional Vietnamese bites in an offbeat setting. Dishes to try: Chinese lettuce and mushrooms (cai lan sot nam), ribs with tamarind (suon non rang me), smoked goose breast (luon ngong xong khoi)

 
Off the beaten track, restaurant Ray Quan offers an unexpected take on traditional fare, mainly of the carnivorous variety. Elisabeth Rosen reports.The rumble of an approaching train forced our conversation to a momentary halt. Nibbling on warm roasted peanuts, we watched car after car roar by the open door, passing so close we could make eye contact with the passengers.

They had reason to stare. Tucked into the stretch of train tracks between Nguyen Khuyen and Le Duan streets, Ray Quan is a cozy spot that belies the gritty location. The name, which means "railroad" in Vietnamese, is certainly fitting: I'd heard about this place from a friend, but even so, as we maneuvered along the uneven sidewalk beside the tracks, my companions and I began to wonder what we were heading into.

But these doubts dissolved when we reached the warmly lit room, where the owner, Thanh, gave us an enthusiastic welcome. Offering us homemade rice wine, she ushered us to a rustic wooden table and brought over plates of crunchy peanuts and cucumber cut into thick wedges.

Before opening the restaurant two months ago, Thanh ran a graphic design company. Her quirky aesthetic sets the tone for the decor, which seems to have been drawn from the attic of an eccentric hoarder. Shelves house a collection of household objects – a straw slipper, a piggy bank – and walls are covered in old newspaper and dusty colonial-era photographs. Colourful bottles of rice wine line the racks behind the counter, but don't look too closely at what's inside.

The food, too, has its quirks. These are traditional dishes, but not the ones you'll see at Ha Noi's more genteel establishments. A glance at the menu illustrates the fierce pride Vietnamese have in turning every part of the animal, from prime cuts to scraps and innards, into a palatable meal. You'll find spring rolls here, but you'll also find pig tail, frog belly and duck gizzard.

The first dish to emerge from the kitchen, tender Chinese lettuce strewn with generous handfuls of plump, meaty mushrooms (VND35,000), proved that the kitchen takes ingredients seriously. Soaking up the braising liquid – a lavish meld of garlic and soy sauce – the vegetables had a pure richness leagues above the oil-heavy greens spooned out at most restaurants.

Next up were pork ribs, slivered and stir-fried with onions, red chili and tamarind (VND85,000). We'd expected larger hunks of meat, but found surprising delight in gnawing protein from the tiny shards, electrified by the sour sauce.

Then came thick tranches of smoked goose breast (VND110,000). Tender and meaty, with a mellow cured flavour, the dish needed no embellishment.

 

Under the radar: This cozy spot, hidden along a stretch of railroad, offers a pleasant place to unwind. ­ — VNS Photos Truong Vi
 

Thanh is constantly toying with ingredients and flavours. A chalkboard hanging on the wall advertises seasonal specials in scrawled Vietnamese, but this provides no guarantee of what will actually end up at your table. Writing down our order of grilled duck, Thanh paused and said that the bird would really be better fried. It was baby duck, she said. How many? Two? Four? After a table-wide debate, we ended up with duck simmered with pineapple, which proved to be a impressive finale. Traces of meat clinging to the bone were carried out in a subtle amber broth spiked with red chiles, to be heated on a burner on the table and poured over rice vermicelli (VND120,000). The meat itself – what was left of it – had little flavour; the real star of the show was the pineapple. Simmered for so long its sweetness disappeared into the broth, the fruit tasted almost like a root vegetable.

Ray Quan is full of surprises – most of them of the carnivorous variety. There are no substantial vegetarian dishes listed on the menu, although Thanh conjured up a plate of stir-fried noodles and vegetables (VND40,000) for a vegetarian companion.

Still, to forgo meat here is to miss the point of a cuisine where nothing goes to waste and every scrap can be turned into excellence. Carved out of the tracks, the restaurant itself reveals the transformative power of determination. — VNS

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