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Fungus-filled fare hits the right buttons

Update: April, 14/2013 - 15:43
Feeding frenzy: At lunchtime, the wait for food can be as long as thirty minutes. — VNS Photos Elisabeth Rosen

As demand mushrooms for cleaner produce, one couple is taking advantage of this expanding market. Elisabeth Rosen reports.

Around noon, people start to crowd into the old house, jostling for spots at bamboo tables packed into the entryway and along the walls.

Come at lunchtime, and you might not eat for half an hour. But it's worth the wait.

At Nam 76, mushrooms invade familiar territory, sneaking into dishes that you thought you knew and convincing you that they should stay. Spindly trumpets stud pillows of sticky rice; plump straw mushrooms follow rice vermicelli into a meaty broth; an avalanche of burly straws blankets tangled egg noodles. All of it comes piled into earthenware bowls that feel bigger than they are.

Maybe it's best to begin with the sticky rice – the dish that started it all. Before it was a restaurant, the cosy space on Lo Duc Street housed a mushroom store that sold a half-dozen varieties of organic fungi. Customers kept asking the owners for cooking tips; eventually, the couple started selling what would become their signature xoi nam.

There's a wealth of toppings to choose from. The best is a combination of caramelised pork belly (thit ba chi) and shredded wisps of ruoc nam huong (VND35,000). Traditional pork ruoc is also available, but the mushroom version – inspired by a visit to a pagoda, where the owners saw monks drying and shredding shiitakes – is far preferable, with a bittersweet depth reminiscent of cocoa.

The mushrooms come from an organic farm 40 kilometres from Ha Noi, run by a friend of the owners who studied sustainable agriculture in the UK. You can still buy them by the bushel; on one visit, I saw a group of women emerge from the restaurant with a full shipping crate. Their runaway success reveals how much demand there is in the capital for cleaner produce.

The original restaurant on Lo Duc, with warm bamboo tables and wicker settings, has a snug feel that complements the hearty bowls of xoi and chao. But the second outpost on Le Ngoc Han Street has a more expansive kitchen, dishing out stir-fries and hot pot as well as those tried-and-true favourites.

Flavourful fungus:Nam 76 gives mushrooms the starring role in traditional dishes, from sticky rice to rice vermicelli soup.

The restaurant's best dish is also the simplest. Oyster mushrooms, thrown together with garlic and oil and scraps of beef (nam xao bo, VND70,000), melt into a buttery heap. It's a glorious illustration of the mushroom's transformative power.

The more mushrooms, the better. So many fungi blanket crispy egg noodles that it's easy to miss the beef hiding in the tangled strands (mi xao nam thit bo, VND70,000). Sadly, the same approach doesn't hold for the spring rolls (nem nam, VND12,000 per roll), which offer only a suggestion of mushroom flavour.

And while rice vermicelli (bun) soups occupy almost half the menu, they offer the least satisfaction for mushroom lovers. There may be no stock on earth more substantial than a mushroom broth. But these are not mushroom soups. They are the everyday soups you encounter on the street, with mushrooms thrown in.

Beef shank noodle soup (bun nam rom bap bo, VND55,000) is a case in point. Handfuls of plump straw mushrooms lend no flavour to the soup, nor does the broth enrich the bland domes. It's not unpleasant to eat by any means, but in a restaurant that specialises in mushrooms – and charges for the privilege – you yearn for more umami.

Fresh focus: The best dishes emphasise simple ingredients, like these oyster mushrooms sauteed with garlic.

The mushroom magic returns in ice cream (kem nam, VND15,000). The recipe comes from France, but while European chefs use dried mushrooms, here fresh ones are blended with a vanilla custard base. It sounds like a bad idea, but it tastes like a richer vanilla, with earthy undertones.

In the Le Ngoc Han location, the owners have opened up the interior of an old house to create two miniature dining rooms. But the white walls have an antiseptic feel that even the quilted pictures and soft hanging lanterns can't quite dispel. The bamboo tables and chairs from the Lo Duc store are lined up in awkward rows, both in the narrow entryway and upstairs, as if to stuff in as many people as possible. Still, it's easy to be so fixated on your food you forget your surroundings. — VNS

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Nam 76

Address: 1B Le Ngoc Han St,

76 Lo Duc St

Tel: 0977 528 368

Price Range: VND30,000 – 300,000

Comment: Organic mushrooms rev up traditional dishes. Dishes to try: oyster mushrooms with garlic and beef (nam xao bo), mushroom sticky rice with pork (xoi nam thit ba chi), mushroom ice cream (kem nam)

 

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