Oceanic entrees:A rooftop oyster bar serves shellfish imported from Canada, along with live jazz. — Photo courtesy of Dons Tây Hồ
Having worked in restaurants across the world for some of the biggest names in the business, Don Berger knows a thing or two about cooking. Mixing a smorgasbord of international dishes, Dons is fast becoming one of Hà Nộis premier fine-dining spots. Elisabeth Rosen reports.
When Donald Berger opened this bistro along the eastern bank of West Lake, the street had yet to be paved. A dirt path wound past residents backyards, carrying the handful of motorbikes that ventured out to the sleepy neighborhood.
Three years later, Tây Hồ has seen a rapid influx of development. But although glassy new apartments have replaced flower gardens and restaurants catering to an expat clientele are no longer a rarity, Dons remains a destination for sophisticated fare.
Rather than focusing on one cuisine, the menu offers a carefully curated collection of dishes from around the world. Before settling in Hà Nội, Berger worked as a chef in cities from Tokyo to Milan; while the food reflects his international experience, for the most part, he doesnt experiment with fusion. Rather, each dish is recreated with sincerity, from Northern Thailand-style pork salad (VNĐ130,000) to Indonesian spiced rice topped with chicken satay (VNĐ200,000).
This huge variety could well be a recipe for disaster. But under the skillful hands of Nguyễn Văn Tú, fresh from his victory in the 2012 Iron Chef Việt Nam competition, the dishes cohere into a remarkable collage.
A meal at Dons might start out with plump oysters from British Columbia or Prince Edward Island, dotted with wasabi and lime. Then it might jump the ocean to bánh xèo (VNĐ160,000), crisp cocoons of golden egg and pork overflowing with strands of fresh herbs, and Canadian spring rolls (VNĐ189,000), one of the chefs rare but successful attempts at fusion. Swirled with creamy avocado and crab and dotted with a bright spray of caviar, the appetisers make the idea that a restaurant should focus on one cuisine feel old-fashioned, even staid.
Fancy finale:The rich tiramisu is an homage to Alain Ducasse, forwhom the owner worked in Monte Carlo. — Photo courtesy of Dons Tây Hồ
If there was anything approaching a theme here, it might be comfort food. Dishes like grown-up macaroni&Cheese (VNĐ300,000) and moms meat loaf (VNĐ360,000), drawn from Bergers family recipes, pay homage to Western classics, while phở comes with chicken (VNĐ160,000) or USA prime beef (VNĐ180,000) for a Vietnamese take on soothing familiarity. Yet the artful presentations also make the restaurant a destination for fine dining. You can come for a pizza and a beer, but you can also come for a Wagyu steak with truffle-infused potatoes.
The prices run high, but so do the portions. Steaks come in sizeable hunks, served with accompaniments that run the gamut from rocket salad and French fries to foie gras. A slab of tuna steak, riddled with amber lines from the grill, comes perched on a buttery sweep of mashed potatoes (VNĐ420,000). Between the layers curl emerald leaves of bok choy, as unexpected as the gardens hidden behind the tiny houses along the street. A dusky beurre noir streaks across the plate below, carrying hints of hoisin and black pepper.
Dons is Bergers second venture in the Vietnamese capital. After working as the executive chef at Hà Nội Press Club for three years, he opened The Vine, a casual wine bar across the street on Xuan Dieu. But where The Vines ambitions are straightforward, Dons are sprawling.
Nostalgic for Thai flavours? You can find them here, but so too can you find pizzas that are the real deal, with a light glaze of tomato sauce and a pleasant char from the wood-burning oven – although the European-style thin crust might not satisfy Americans hungry for the doughier version. The chefs pizza is modeled after Bergers favorite slice from Montreal, although the owner has added red chilis to the classic topping of crisp pepperoni, green peppers and mushrooms. There are also what you might call Vietnamese-style pizzas, like a pie strewn with barbecued pork, garlic, crushed peanuts and cilantro that pays homage to the ubiquitous Northern lunch of bún chả (both pizzas VNĐ190,000 medium, 298,000 large, 398,000 extra-large).
Dons Tây Hồ
Address: 16/27 Quảng An Road
Tel.: 3719 2828
Price Range: VNĐ300,000 – 1,000,000
Comment: International comfort food and fine dining. Dishes to try: oysters, Canadian spring rolls, tiramisu
Like many other gourmet restaurants in Hà Nội, Dons relies on imported meat and seafood, much of it from Australia and the United States. But the produce is mostly local and organic, and much is made in house – breads, pastries, smoked salmon. Although the fish comes from Norway, its cured here: bathed in Phú Quốc sea salt and Vietnamese cane sugar, then air-dried and smoked on a rack perched between two woks, infused with lotus blossom tea.
If you can only save room for one dessert, make it tiramis (VNĐ188,000). Made in-house, the mascarpone has a rich creaminess that stacks comfortably between delicate strata of cake; the recipe is a tribute to Alain Ducasse, for whom Berger worked in Monte Carlo.
Like the food, the setting is both comfortable and elegant. Turquoise cushions and drapes give the dining room a marine ambience that suits the lakeside location, interspersed with wooden beams and wide brass fixtures. At night, the roof terrace plays host to live jazz and an oyster bar; during the day, you can sit in the airy dining room and watch fishermen across the street reel in their trophies. Despite the neighborhoods rampant development, theres still room in Tây Hồ for all kinds of tradition. — VNS