March, 24 2013 18:07:00

Takeout rolls spring up in Old Quarter

That's a wrap:Various Northern-style fillings are stuffed into Southern wrappers and deep-fried at Nem Gion opposite St. Joseph's.

Eat your heart out , KFC: a traditional snack has become the fast-food specialty at a new restaurant and Elisabeth Rosen is a convert

Crunching on slender twigs of minced pork, deep-fried in crispy wrappers and submerged in sweet fish sauce, you might believe you've wandered into Ha Noi's newest fast-food franchise.

You wouldn't be completely wrong. At this new shop across from St Joseph's Cathedral, founder Hai Ha reinvents spring rolls, that well-known staple of Vietnamese cuisine, as a modern snack. The vibe is half Old Quarter, half KFC.

Nem Gion, which opened last Friday, claims to provide the first spring roll that can be ordered for takeout. The namesake "crispy roll" (nem gion) bears striking resemblance to a French fry (also on offer) and is designed to be easy to eat on the go. But not so fast: the cozy, brightly coloured space tempts you into sitting down.

The combo platter offers another reason to eat in. Here, several varieties of spring roll come artfully placed across broad banana leaves, accompanied by bite-size knots of rice vermicelli and a heap of fresh herbs. Sweet fish sauce with pickled carrots and green papaya is self-service. There is also ketchup.

The setup might emulate a fast-food joint, but the emphasis on ingredients does not. Noodles come from Phu Do, a village known for artisanally-produced rice vermicelli (bun). Herbs come from Efarm, a firm that specialises in clean produce. Ha spent two years trying out wrappers before settling on these golden sheets, which come from HCM City and stay crisp longer than the transparent rice paper wrappers used in the North.

On a roll: The restaurant's namesake "crunchy roll"might be the next snack craze for teenage Hanoians currently besotted with cheese sticks and potato chips.

Ha, who put a career in skin care on hold to start Nem Gion with two high-school friends, recalls eating her first spring rolls when she was a small child. Prepared by her mother, the traditional Northern nem - minced pork and vegetables wrapped in a transparent rice wrapper and deep-fried - started her lifelong love affair with the dish.

At Nem Gion, she gives the traditional rolls her mother made a twist by putting them in wrappers from the Southern region, resulting in a crispier exterior (nem truyen thong). In the South, these wrappers are mainly filled with meat; here, they contain a variety of Northern-style fillings, all of them generous and flavourful. Square wrappers come stuffed with crab meat (nem cua be), while triangular parcels contain beef with carrot and mushroom - the Vietnamese take on pot pie (nem bo). Another package is filled with carrot and onion strands, edged with the distinctive sharpness of Chinese celery. A transparent roll camouflages juicy snail (nem oc), so meaty it could well be confused with mushroom.

New nem:Nem Gion, arestaurant which has just opened in the Old Quarter reinvents traditional spring rolls for the fast-food generation. — VNS Photos Doan Tung

Nem Gion

Address: 5 Nha Chung

Tel.: 0460279902

Price Range: VND2,500 - VND12,000

Comment: Spring rolls served in a trendy setting. Dishes to try: Traditional roll (nem truyen thong), snail roll (nem oc), combo platter

There is also a token fresh spring roll, layered with shrimp and herbs. But the filling is bland compared to the fried rolls. As Colonel Sanders would probably say, some things taste better dunked in hot oil.

To the untrained Western eye, all the rolls look the same: fried wrappers shrouding mystery substances. An illustrated sign explaining the different fillings in English would certainly be welcomed by foreign visitors.

Such a sign would go well with the playful decor. The newly decorated space, with hot pink walls and bright wood tabling, is a change from the traditional Hanoian restaurant's business model, where a restaurant occupies the front room of a house. But Nem Gion is still a family business: Ha's brother painted the whimsical pictures that line the walls, which depict spring rolls with baleful eyes in an assortment of settings. In one image, two rolls recline in a hot tub; in another, they skip around St Joseph's Cathedral.

This sense of playfulness is rarely found in restaurants here. It's an encouraging sign that traditional Vietnamese food may not yet be ready to concede its territory to KFC. — VNS

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