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Western food for Vietnamese palates

Update: December, 08/2014 - 15:27
Window-light: QBIK owner Cuong and staff hang out in the minimal and modern Vietnamese designed restaurant-cafe. — VNS Photos Truong Vi

Veering away from typical expat haunts, Lucy Sexton finds a restaurant run by Vietnamese for Vietnamese, offering a refreshing alternative in an area dominated by bun cha and Korean BBQ.

When covering the growing food scene in Ha Noi, it's easy to look no further than Tay Ho's Westlake on down to Hoan Kiem-sometimes an outlying hotel gets thrown into the mix for good measure. But Ha Noi's culinary evolution and psyche go beyond western stomping grounds and foreign chefs fusing cuisines or bringing slices of home to Viet Nam.

This week I traversed to a more Vietnamese centric locale, a place meant for Vietnamese customers, prepared by Vietnamese chefs and served in Vietnamese aesthetics.

QBIK, only three weeks old, sits hidden on Nguyen Cong Hoan, what could be called "VTV-village". If you have the time and patience to find QBIK's entrance, a second floor cafe whose door is on the backside of the building, park your scooter in the alley crowded with old women bending over heavy pots of tea.

Brain-bites: Mushroom wrapped bacon-bites with dijon and a bite or two of garden crunch makes for a tasty energy boost mid-day, or as a more indulgent accessory to a healthy salad dinner.

You will find a cafe-restaurant dressed in a recent trendy style whose best exemplar is the Kafe on Dien Bien Phu – a Vietnamese modern chic, with industrial and natural elements edited together.

The menu is similar to the restaurant's design, an experiment in bringing a western sentimentality to dining experiences for local residents and workers. Though half the lens is Vietnamese and the other half of a generic "western" make, both menu and decor are definitely focused on Vietnamese customers.

Owner Vu Manh Cuong, 30, and part time chef while QBIK takes off, envisions the cafe as, "an alternative for people who live in the area who may be tired of Japanese and Korean food. With a cozy atmosphere, we aim to provide customers with a chilled out place to enjoy some international food in a quite typical old Vietnamese condo space."

The menu boasts a large breakfast fare that dominates. The bagel decked in smoked salmon, egg and creme fraiche (VND70,000) and the QBIK Breaky (VND85,000) with eggs, toast, large bacon and beef sausages from Hanoi Small Goods, roasted tomatoes, baked beans and a mushroom-potato hash are both hearty and can be ordered at anytime of the day. I enjoyed mine at 6pm!

Sea garden: A fillet of salmon atop a bed of spinach tossed with peppers, cashews and radishes. The menu offers a salmon dish for every meal of the day, just in case you are feeling fishy.

It's a typical breakfast melange, but runny sunny-side-up eggs, roasted cherry tomatoes (I would have preferred thick slices of an heirloom) and flavourful bacon cannot be beat when you have the craving. They also shouldn't be messed around with too much.

Typical is exactly what this little cafe wants to offer. The idea was to bring or introduce Western taste buds - Cuong's university years in Sweden definitely informed the several salmon options-to Vietnamese customers in the area. The need to out-invent neighbouring restaurants doesn't exist for QBIK, the competition is on the other side of the city.

Cuong also sees QBIK as part of his larger work as an entrepreneur involved in social and community development and support. The cafe currently serves as a place to train and develop young hospitality and food talents in Ha Noi, but Cuong plans for it to become even more of a "social enterprise", providing jobs to youths who face discrimination perhaps educating the public on healthy eating.

QBIK

Address: 2nd floor, 64 Nguyen Cong Hoan Street, Ha Noi

Telephone: 0989690789

Price: VND35,000-99,000

Dishes: Bangers and Mash, Gronsaker open-faced sandwich, Grilled honey chicken salad.

Comment: Restaurant and cafe fare-light, healthy and cheap.

If you look at the menu you can already appreciate that it is flexible enough to be personalised and encourages customers to develop healthier eating habits. There are several invitations to choose between healthy, less healthy and even less healthy options. Choose the chicken burger rather than the beef, or go for the calories and add bacon and eggs (VND89-99,000). The choice is yours-there'll be no judging-but at least it's a choice.

The cafe also prides itself on keeping extraneous sugars and salts out of their foods and drinks. I personally feel that Vietnamese cuisine tends to have a heavy hand when it comes to sugar. I was happily surprised that when I forgot to ask for "khong duong," my pressed carrot juice arrived unpolluted with refined sugars. The natural carrot is already sweet enough.

Lunch and dinner options are a collection of open-faced sandwiches, three safe pasta options of carbonara, lasagna and Bolognese, and a section of yummy sounding salads from pan-seared salmon and pesto (VND99,000) to a grilled honey chicken salad with a Dijon mustard dressing (VND79,000).

The menu prices are also really reasonable. Nothing is over VND99,000 and that includes three salmon dishes. I would suggest spending a morning there, on the balcony, enjoying fresh pressed juices and yummy toast over a book. It's closer to my house than Tay Ho anyway! — VNS

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