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The buffet banquet which covers all bases

Update: March, 31/2013 - 12:28
Room for indulgence:The light, airy space offers a pleasant view of the city. — Photo courtesy of Sofitel Plaza

With its comprehensive selection of high-end cuisine, Brasserie Westlake's buffet is more than a match for even the most ravenous of eaters. Perched above Ha Noi's famous Ho Tay, the restaurant offers a feast for the eyes and the tastebuds.

by Elisabeth Rosen

The historical origins of the buffet are shrouded in obscurity. Some attribute today's all-you-can-eat festivities to the Scandinavian smorgasbord; the early twentieth-century author of How to Prepare and Serve a Meal hypothesised that the self-serve meal was born in 17th-century France. When gentleman callers would turn up unexpectedly at the homes of ladies they sought to woo, she claimed, the panicked kitchen staff would be obligated to throw whatever could be found in the pantry onto the table.

Fortunately, Andre Bosia, the executive chef at the Sofitel Plaza, has put a bit more thought into the menu. On your way in, you're confronted with a wall-to-wall display of vegetable dishes: to call this a "salad section" would be like referring to LeBron James as a "basketball player". Many of the hefty plates feature organic vegetables from Da Lat, prepared in mostly Vietnamese style – sugary beets cut into bite-size cubes, purple cabbage curled in a tangy dressing, strands of water spinach, bitter melon cut into crescents and mellowed with slices of crispy pork.

Licence to grill:The ambitious buffet is as enjoyable to look at as it is to consume. — VNS Photos Elisabeth Rosen

Bosia's career has taken him from Sydney to Tokyo, Bahrain, Vienna, Glasgow and most recently the Metropole – a breadth of experience that can be seen in the range of dishes presented at Brasserie Westlake, although classical French cuisine still forms the backbone of his cooking philosophy. Bosia is a watchful presence in the kitchen: the day I met him, he stood behind a frying pan turning over crisp slices of breaded veal. It was wiener schnitzel Wednesday. (Sadly, the other daily specials are far less alliterative: Paella Tuesday, Risotto Sunday).

Bosia is wise enough to realise that a buffet doesn't compete on flavour alone. Many dishes have to be prepared in advance; as a result, they can't measure up to fresher fare. What the buffet has going for it is enormity of vision. Admire the dazzling array of sashimi – and gaze at its peasant companions, platters of house-made pate balanced on rustic logs – then move along to the grill. There you can load your plate with what appears to be the entire contents of the local wet market: medallions of tender beef, pork ribs covered in a thick veneer of fat, fish drawn from the glittering waters of Nha Trang.

The selection of warm dishes for vegetarians is a tad paltry: steamed broccoli, roast potatoes, fried rice. Luckily for those who eschew meat, the cheese course hits all the right notes.

Delectable desserts:It's impossible to choose just one of these miniature treats. — VNS Photo Elisabeth Rosen

Brasserie Westlake

Address: Sofitel Plaza, 1 Thanh Nien Road

Tel.: 04 3823 8888

Price Range: VND300,000 (buy one, get one free weekend lunch) – 880,000 (dinner)

Comment: An ambitious buffet that impresses both visually and gastronomically. Dishes to try: purple cabbage salad, grilled pork ribs, apple strudel

In a country where cheese – even the sliced kind – is an expensive luxury, it's a rare pleasure to reconnect with these old favourites. Soft chevre and gooey Camembert can be found on the cheese board, along with wedges of Gouda and Emmental.

There is an impressive variety of baguettes and rolls, but the gluten-free bread is the surprise winner. Dense and hearty, with the buttery heft of a multigrain scone, it might be the cure for too many fluffy white banh mis.

Dessert gets a table all its own, laid out with the scientific exactness of a museum display. If you worry about overeating, try a slice of the creamy raspberry cheesecake and you'll forget why self-control was so important. A cast iron skillet warms thick slices of apple strudel. Sweet potato fritters and simmered taro che pay tribute to Vietnamese-style desserts, while the generous array of fresh fruit lets you walk away with a clean conscience. Elegant arrangements of miniature pastries prompt thorough analysis: each one is more detailed and toothsome than the last.

Plates are whisked away when you finish; any requests are answered promptly. The only small quibble we had was that our water was poured from a plastic bottle, rather than simply placed on the table for us to help ourselves.

On the last Saturday night of the month, the hotel throws an event on the 20th floor, complete with a DJ and complimentary cocktails for ladies. You only get one – and it must be consumed within the hour-and-a-half window between 8 and 9:30pm – but it's worth it to see the lake. For despite Brasserie Westlake's name, the airy Mediterranean-style space lacks a view of the water. Outside the expansive windows, motorbikes zoom by onto Thanh Nien Road. You simultaneously feel within Ha Noi and above it, like a colonial lady gazing out her window, watching for gentleman callers and hoping that one might stop by for lunch. — VNS

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