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Bar snacks meet barramundi at Cousins

Update: October, 12/2014 - 20:14
Family plan: The eponymous cousins, Cyprien Pierlovisi and Myriam Ruyssen, opened the restaurant in July. — Photos Duhwee Pham

Thoughtfully composed dishes and a casual vibe make Cousins an enjoyable place to start a night out in Tay Ho. Elisabeth Rosen reports.

When first arriving at Cousins, you can't be blamed if you experience a touch of deja vu. It all feels a bit familiar: exposed brick, hummus, West Lake view. But then the first dishes arrive – moist, sharply spiced falafel (VND50,000), tender grilled zucchini layered with mozzarella and juicy tomato (VND100,000) – and you realise you're in for a far more sophisticated culinary experience than what typically passes for western fare.

One could make a meal solely from plunging crusty toast into the roasted eggplant dip dubbed "Caviar d'Aubergine", which has the smoky flavour typical of baba ganoush mellowed with sunny bursts of lemon and olive oil (VND60,000).

The eponymous cousins, Cyprien Pierlovisi and Myriam Ruyssen, opened the restaurant in July, along a stretch of West Lake that in the past few years has become packed with trendy western eateries. Since then, it has been consistently crowded with stylish expats and Vietnamese, about one-third of whom book tables in advance – something rarely done in impromptu Ha Noi. Pierlovisi, who previously ran chic lakeside bar 21 North, cedes the day-to-day management to Ruyssen while he works for a food distribution company.

Looking west: The menu touches on Mediterranean dishes but the focus is on French fare, like chocolate tart (top) and raviolle de Romans.

Neither has formal hospitality training, although he has spent almost 10 years in the wine industry, which shows through in the solid wine list.

They grew up in southeast France – Lyon for her and Grenoble for him – and spent frequent childhood years at their grandmother's home in the French Alps and adult years in London, which explains why their menu feels unconcerned with geographical boundaries, gliding unapologetically from hummus to duck rillettes. It's also flexible when it comes to portions:one can compose light meals from the appetisers and bar snacks or opt for more substantial mains.

Local ingredients like mango and avocado make occasional appearances, as in the excellent salmon tartare (VND210,000), but the cousins' hearts are in the nostalgic French specials, like a recent dish of raviolle de Romans (VND180,000). Like Italian ravioli, this pasta from Roman city in northeast France is meant to be paper-thin, but lacking the proper mould, the kitchen makes a thicker handmade version. Small matter: coated with a gloss of cracked pepper butter, the plump pillows of homemade ricotta, Gruyere and parsley have a homemade heft far superior to conventional ravioli.

Cousins is a solidly collaborative endeavor, which testifies not only to the family theme but also to the close-knit, overlapping nature of Ha Noi's creative ecosystem: the manager alone is an architect, a DJ and a designer.

Friends of the owners also supplied most of the decor. The Work Can Wait script emblazoning one wall like a larger-than-life tattoo was painted by KU, a graffiti artist the owners knew from Paris; Nguyen Qui Duc of Tadioto fame helped design the intriguing restroom, which has an edgy, industrial vibe.

The informal setting of simple plank tables and metal hanging lamps sets up a deliberate contrast with the polished cutlery and fabric napkins.

"We're doing quality but keeping it casual. We want to serve modern European cuisine without overcharging customers," Pierlovisi explained.

Cousins

Address: 3 Quang Ba

Tel: 01238670098

Price range: VND100,000-300,000

Dishes to try: Falafel, barramundi, raviolles de Romans

Comment: Casual, well-executed western fare

While prices are certainly higher than the bun ca stall on the next block, they're more than reasonable for thoughtfully composed mains like crisp pan-fried barramundi (VND165,000) paired with careful ovals of carrot mash and julienned vegetables dressed with pesto.

Grilled salmon steak with zucchini and aubergine (VND190,000) encapsulates the effortless feeling of late summer.

That thoughtfulness also extends to the provenance of the ingredients, slipped in so casually you don't even notice.

It doesn't say on the menu, but that barramundi is farmed in Nha Trang by Asvelis, which guarantees clean, traceable fish; the red wine-laced ragu that tops a nest of tagliatelle (VND150,000) features antibiotic- and hormone-free beef from Margaret River in Australia.

The salted caramel ice cream enriching a light, heady bread and butter pudding (VND80,000) comes from Bellany, an artisanal ice cream producer using Vietnamese ingredients. With an increasing number of Hanoians concerned about where their food comes from, it's a choice that marks Cousins as more than simply another western restaurant on West Lake. — VNS

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