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Ha Noi chain strikes up hat-trick of hits

Update: March, 15/2013 - 10:46
Home sweet home:Located in a restored colonial villa, the restaurant feels more homelike than its previous two locations. VNS Photos Elisabeth Rosen

Following on from Quan An Ngon's other two Ha Noi eateries, this latest installment eschews the hubbub of the bustling city, providing a welcome haven where diners can relax in a homely setting. Elisabeth Rosen reports.

In the hushed room, you could hear the sizzle as strips of rich pork plunged into the golden dipping sauce. Spread across the woven platter, a heap of snowy noodles awaited their spin in the broth, flanked by a forest of emerald herbs and a fragrant pinch of minced garlic.

If the original Quan An Ngon conjures up the chaotic streets of Ha Noi, filled with vendors hawking steaming pots of noodle soup and piles of sticky rice, then the new Phan Dinh Phung branch represents the home – at least, the home you wish you had. Built in a restored colonial villa, the restaurant has a more relaxed ambience than its predecessor does. The dining room isn't small, but it's far from cavernous. Seated at comfortable oak-paneled tables, surrounded by blossoming plants and the restauranttrademark soft yellow walls, you can actually hear yourself talk.

The Quan An Ngon concept has been transplanted once before. At the restaurants second branch in Cau Giay District, the gentle decor and traditional menu don't quite jive with the location on the bottom floor of a glassy contemporary building. Here, the decorators seem to have learned their lesson. The new Quan An Ngon adapts itself to the space: like the stately villa, the kitchen re-creates – and romanticises – the atmosphere of a simpler time.

Bamboozled:Sticky rice is steamed inside wooden tubes the old-fashioned way, but you may need assistance to remove the grains from their casing.

Many of the dishes on the menu are prepared the old-fashioned way. For bun cha, the chefs grill strips of fatty pork by clamping them between bamboo sticks, rather than on the iron grills you see today on every street corner. Bamboo also surrounds sticky rice, which is steamed in wooden tubes and served alongside strips of grilled chicken in a classic Northern-style preparation (com lam ga nuong, VND80,000). These dishes reveal that convenience is a modern luxury: it can be difficult to peel the sticky rice free from the wood, or to un-clamp your pork from the bamboo sticks. Luckily, the servers are always nearby, ready to spring into action with a set of plastic gloves.

Quan An Ngon's philosophy has always been one of inclusion. Northern, Central and Southern dishes enjoy equal representation on the exhaustive bill of fare. There are still few other restaurants where you can leap from a simple bowl of pho Ha Noi (VND55,000), strewn with green scallions and lissom rice noodles, straight to chilli-spiked Mekong Delta fish soup (bun mam mien Tay, VND55,000) and finish off with a glass of sweet iced coconut milk heaped with gaudy jelly (che suong sa hat luu, VND25,000).

Meat in the middle:Pork for bun cha is grilled on bamboo skewers, rather than a modern iron grill.

There are several new additions to the already encyclopaedic menu. Some are hits, like a Southern-style salad that marries crisp coconut shards with prawns and tender pork (goi co hu dua tom thit, VND120,000) and a snack of diced mussels from the Central region that heaps easily onto sesame-studded rice crackers (hen xao xuc banh trang, VND85,000). Others are less groundbreaking. Does Quan An Ngon really need more spring rolls? Or more grilled prawns?

Quan An Ngon

Address: 34 Phan Dinh Phung

Tel.: 04 37349777

Price Range: VND100,000-300,000

Comment: Nostalgic recreations of traditional Vietnamese fare. Dishes to try: bun cha, com lam ga nuong, che suong sa hat luu.

And the restaurant's renditions of street food still beg the question of whether a dish like the humble bun cha benefits from the promotion to elegant surroundings. With high-quality ingredients, the dish was a pleasure to eat, but I occasionally found myself longing for a certain gritty char.

What Quan An Ngon may lack in the sensory immediacy of a sidewalk food stall, however, it makes up for in presentation. Each dish is arranged with striking care. On a plate of grilled tiger prawns, the vibrant herbal garnish takes up more real estate than the prawns themselves. It's a revealing statement about what Quan An Ngon really stands for: not so much preserving the past as recreating it in vivid Technicolor. Viewed through the golden prism of the majestic old villa, even humble noodles become stars in a glorious culinary history. — VNS

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