Viet Nam News
After several years, Hoàng Anh revisits a well-known Hà Nội eatery and finds a facelift has not lifted the quality of its fare.
I decided to revisit the restaurant after a friend showed me a video of Gordon Ramsay’s Great Escape series, aired in 2011, featuring his gastronomical journey through several countries in Asia.
As someone who’d watched almost his entire production from Master Chef to Hell’s Kitchen, I was intrigued that the man himself had not only visited my hometown, Hà Nội, but also tried the duck-based dishes at Ngan Khoa, a place I once frequented.
Ngan stands for the stapple poultry and Khoa is the owner’s name. Ngan, or Muchovy or Musk duck, a domesticated species that is both meatier and taste different than the normal duck flavour. It’s different flavour has its own fans.
Just to be clear, there was no particular reason that I stopped going there. I left the country for a few years and after I came back, never thought of returning to the place. Until the video. So I went there with a fresh mind and positive expectations.
My first impression of the restaurant was good. They’d decided to renovate it and change the furniture a few years ago. Nothing fancy, just simple wooden furniture, but it was certainly an upgrade over the plastic chairs and old tables.
The restaurant’s layout was typical of such Vietnamese joints, but I could not order anything put on display at the entrance. I am quite familiar with how Vietnamese restaurants like to hang whole cooked animals to attract passersby, but I cannot help thinking about the air pollution these days.
Another reason I find this practice off-putting is that there are certain things you shouldn’t do when it comes to food. Cooked meat should not be hung outside for too long as it will soon go dry.
Herbs on the side: Boiled duck served with blanched spring onion and other fresh veggies. — Photos Hoàng Anh
The deep fried spring rolls were an absolute no-no, too. You do not pre-fry things and leave them out cold. The oil will make its way to the inside while turning the wrapping, which should be crunchy and give off a butter-like flavour, into a slimy, chewy, oily and tasteless texture.
That left me with several à la carte choices on the menu. I ordered a plate of boiled duck (US$4.50), a plate of barbecued duck ($4.50) and a bowl of bamboo shoots with blood jelly ($2.25), which was advertised as one of the restaurant’s signature dishes.
A disclaimer of sorts, here. I am in no way encouraging any of you to try blood jelly. Many foreigners find it especially unappealing and I understand. The dish, while considered an exotic delicacy by many, is not even that popular among locals. In fact, our grandmothers and mothers would tell us not to have them at random shops when we eat outside. So try it at your own risk. Just be prepared.
We did not have to wait long for our order. Busy waiters and waitresses seemed to know what they were doing. The boiled duck was brought out first along with a plate of aromatic herbs and a plate of blanched spring onions and bean sprouts. The presentation was clean and simple. The meat was cut in even slices with a thin layer of skin intact.
I found the duck overcooked and a bit dry. This happens if the duck is too old or the meat has been left outside for too long before being served. While the restaurant managed to get rid of the unpleasant odor, which is typical to duck meat, they also got rid of most of the richness of its flavour – which is slightly sweet and fatty, but not too much so that you get fed up too quickly. It was chewy and bland, evidence that it was overcooked.
However, I’d advise you to try the spring onion, an omnipresent veggie in Vietnamese cuisine and definitely have the boiled duck with accompanying herbs, which include Asian basil, mint and sawtooth leaves. They are selected to be served with the meat because they help highlight the taste and fight off the slightly unpleasant odor. Bean sprouts are good for you, I know, but I found them tasteless.
Not done right: Khoa Ngan’s barbecued duck was just warm on the outside and cold in the middle.
Did I mention that service was quick? It was. Usually quick service is a plus, but not quite so if it comes at the cost of quality. I’m talking about the barbecued duck.
It couldn’t have taken them more than five minutes to deliver our barbecue dish, which I believe was only possible because the meat had been seasoned and grilled beforehand and was briefly heated up before being served.
You don’t have to be food critic to tell, really. Freshly grilled meat on charcoal should be served sizzling hot and the heat should be felt not only on the outside but also on the inside. A little fat should be seen dripping off it and the meat should melt in your mouth without having an overly oily taste.
Unfortunately, our grill was warm on the outside and cold in the middle. The meat was seasoned alright, but overall, the dish was underwhelming. Turning the meat over and I could find residual oil and fat at the bottom of the plate. Picky, maybe, but what’s the point of setting the bar too low?
The bamboo shoots soup was the unsuspected saving grace of the night. Not because it was excellent or anything, it was just OK. The broth was clear and the bamboo shoots were fresh. But calling it a signature dish was a bit of an exaggeration. I recalled having better elsewhere and the soup isn’t that sophisicated to begin with.
To sum up, my return to the Khoa Ngan Restaurant did not live up to expectations. It had undergone a facelift, but the food quality failed to impress. But maybe, you should not take my word for it. Be curious, and give it a try. — VNS
Address: 77 Hai Bà Trưng Street, Hoàn Kiếm District, Hà Nội
Comment: Food was underwhelming