January, 05 2014 15:03:46

Moose & Roo hops from pie to poutine

Ambitious newcomer:The Moose & Roo, a new gastropub on Ma May with stellar service and a menu of sophisticated comfort food, raises the standard for Old Quarter dining. — VNS Photos Truong Vi

Those nostalgic for Canadian comfort food (or curious about what it consists of) can take refuge at this recently opened gastropub, where the service is as much a draw as the food. Elisabeth Rosen reports.

If Ha Noi isn't wintry enough for you, zip your parka and head to the Old Quarter. At The Moose & Roo, a recently opened gastropub on Ma May, the dim lighting and hearty fare evoke far chillier climes. There's even a moose head hanging on the wall - a hunting trophy, perhaps?

It actually belonged to a steer (the owner couldn't find a moose head, so he bought this look-alike from a man carrying three on the back of his motorbike) but it highlights the general theme: carnivorous comfort food with a generous side of nostalgia. The only hint that you're in Asia is the wasabi mash that accompanies seared tuna.

"Moose" refers not only to the antlers, but also to the nationality of their owner, Keith Thibert, who ran a cafe in his native Canada before moving to Viet Nam seven years ago ("Roo" describes his Australian business partner.) Thibert previously did a stint as general manager at Jackson's on Hai Ba Trung, and it shows: one of the top draws at Moose & Roo is the old-school sense of hospitality. Thibert is always circling the room, asking how you're enjoying the food in a way that feels comfortably genuine, and he's trained the Vietnamese staff to do the same. Even when dishes aren't spectacular, the service always shines.

Warm and toasty: The playfully named Canadian Rarebit typifies the restaurant's lighthearted vibe.

The Moose &Roo

Address: 42b Ma May

Tel.: 0904702449

Price Range: VND150,000-400,000

Dishes to try: Braised short rib; Aussie pie; upside-down cheesecake

Some dishes are bistro-level, like braised short rib, a massive hunk of tender beef flanked by truffle mash, braised baby onions and carrots. The earthy richness is so satisfying that the bacon garnish feels superfluous. You could almost make a meal out of the generously portioned sides: green beans in a snappy shallot vinaigrette, creamy mashed potatoes.

Simpler dishes - what you might call pub food - are less compelling. Burgers are solid, though not Ha Noi's best. Composed of beef and bone marrow, the thick patties sit atop buns so fluffy you can barely sink your teeth in, brushed with caramelized onion and blue cheese and accompanied by thin, crispy fries. They are served alongside lettuce, tomato and something so steeped in mayonnaise it may or may not be coleslaw.

Scottish chef Richie Bardsley previously worked at Rick Stein in London, and some dishes have a discernible UK accent: the Aussie Pie is less Down Under than, well, Up O'er. A thick citadel of crust fortifies hearty fillings like creamy chicken and mushroom and beef stewed in dark ale; in a rare concession to vegetarians, the pie can also be made with sweet potato and goat cheese. Served "swimming in gravy", the chicken variety won voracious approval from my Scottish dining companion.

Moose & Roo can often feel British, particularly when it comes to the Sunday roast, a weekly rite that involves the carving up of chicken, pork, beef or lamb and the customary hearty sides. But Canada makes its presence known with poutine, a traditional winter dish of thick-cut fries topped with warm gravy that melts the cheese below into a gooey puddle. Traditionally, the dish is made with curds, the squeaky side products of cheesemaking. Bardsley uses grated cheddar cheese out of necessity. It's a heroic attempt; while it doesn't quite awaken memories of snowy Toronto, there's a lot to be said for trying.

The same goes for Moose & Roo, which despite its occasional stumbles is a valuable addition to the Ha Noi restaurant scene. All the sidewalk camaraderie notwithstanding, there are few real neighbourhood restaurants for foreigners, the kind of places you visit as much for a familiar face as for the food. Moose & Roo is that kind of place, its wood-paneled walls and restrained ambience conjuring up the atmosphere of a private club.

The prices sometimes feel a trifle high. Mid-range options are still lacking in Ha Noi; it would be reassuring to see more affordable fare, especially for a place that positions itself as a neighbourhood pub.

Yet there are glimmers of a more ambitious restaurant here, particularly when it comes to the desserts. In the Moose & Roo rendition of apple pie, soft roasted apples come laced with golden raisins, between layers of crust crowned with melted cheddar. Upside-down cheesecake manages to be lighter than the typical dense wedge, without losing its richness. The mango and lemon confit that tops it is almost surprising in its brightness. In this winter-steeped pub, it's easy to forget that you're in a tropical country. — VNS

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