A refreshing taste in an old haunt

Update: March, 10/2019 - 09:00
The front view of 81.QT. — VNS Photo Mỹ Hà
Viet Nam News

Rediscovering Vietnamese cuisine in a converted French villa proves to be a stimulating and tasty experience. Nguyễn Mỹ Hà reports.

When you’ve lived in your hometown for a long time and nothing local can impress you any more, a surprise visit from a friend from afar may change your mindset.

It happened to me recently when we took our friend from the UK out for a Vietnamese dining experience.

We chose 81.QT, a Vietnamese restaurant located at the same number on Quán Thánh Street. It’s a French villa that’s been converted into a restaurant. We used to go there many years ago for mini-concerts held in the courtyard, but it has changed hands several times since then and now serves Vietnamese delicacies.

81.QT can sit about 100 diners, but the floor plan is divided into smaller rooms and spaces instead of one big dining hall like many new restaurants in urban centres.

The elegance of a French villa naturally gives diners a sense of privacy, even in the big hall downstairs. Diners can contemplate great photographs hanging on the walls and try the wine, bottles of which are lined up in racks around the house.

We wanted to try ngó xuân, a special vegetable in season at this time of year, but they had run out, so we settled for boiled vegetable dipped in hard-boiled eggs (VNĐ109,000). The greens cut into big chunks served perfectly well as an appetizer.

Next we ordered chả ốc (VNĐ180,000), a new Hà Nội delicacy that had become a fixture in most new dining venues in town. Created by Ms Hằng of Hà Nội’s famed bún ốc shop on Phù Đổng Thiên Vương Street, her baked escargot cakes are first dipped in chili sauce. Our friend had not tried this dish before, and said he liked it very much thanks to the tangy shallots that give the dish its main flavour.

“What did people in London think about the Trump-Kim summit in Hà Nội,” we asked our friend thinking we would like to know more about people’s opinions beyond the newspaper headlines and TV coverage about the summit that took Hà Nội by storm just last week.  

“What about that summit? All we care about now is Brexit!” Prior to our conversation, the UK-EU talks had not produced any results after hours of negotiations. They were scheduled to continue the following day.

We were startled for half a second, realising that while what happened here made headlines around the world, most people care more about practical things that directly affect them.

Next we ordered a special pigeon dish: stir-fried chopped pigeon with Vietnamese seeded white pickled egg-plants (VNĐ250,000). The waitress suggested the dish to us, which we were dubious about trying. She said it was a traditional Vietnamese dish and one of the restaurant’s signature plates.

The elegance of a French villa gives the restaurant a nice view from any angle. — VNS Photo Mỹ Hà
Stir-fried pigeon with pickled egg-plant. — VNS Photo Mỹ Hà
Surfing tofu, which means tofu gets tossed through the boiling oil as fast as a surfing boat. — VNS Photo Mỹ Hà
Stone sauna bamboo chicken. — VNS Photo Mỹ Hà

To be honest, I’ve tried many Vietnamese dishes from chim câu quay mật ong (roasted pigeons in five spices and honey), xôi chim, chopped pigeon in steamed sticky rice, and chim câu thuôn hành răm (pigeon in green onions and knee-weed leaves), but we had never heard of this dish. I tried it with hesitation because the pigeon meat was very tender and we usually tend to marinate it with warm flavours like salt or star-anise and honey. I doubted the sour taste of the egg-plant pickle would make the meat taste good.

To my surprise, only the pickle tasted sour, the pigeon meat tasted fine because it was accompanied by wild betel leaves which were fragrant and cured the coldness of the bird. Traditional Vietnamese medicine divides food into hot and cold categories: meat like beef, poultry and fish belong to the cold group and must be cooked with hot ingredients like ginger, garlic, tumeric and wild betel leaves to achieve a balanced taste.

If only the world was a more balanced place like the food cooked in the traditional Vietnamese way.

“Europe has become increasingly unsafe place, with far right groups emerging in many countries,” our friend said. “Anti-Semitism is growing and we have a feeling everything felt like in 1930s Europe.”

Next came the main course of chicken cooked on hot stones. Cooked in a clay-pot, we asked the chef to prepare it in the kitchen before he served it to our table. Normally this dish can be cooked on the table to add an exotic flavour. The chicken was from a special species called gà tre (VNĐ395,000), which literally means bamboo chicken in English. Weighing less than a kilo each, what we had was more skin and bone than flavourful meat as we anticipated.

My favourite dish after the vegetables was the đậu lướt ván (VNĐ49,000) or surfing tofu, which is crispy on the outside and creamy, soft and buttery on the inside.

Unlike other meals when we would normally finish with a hot soup over rice, we decided to skip it and had the special green grapefruit for desert.

The food was delicious except for the chicken and we had a great time catching up. The atmosphere was cosy and sentimental, and was completed when our friend presented some books he’d bought for our kids: The Silk Roads, Alice in Wonderland and A Bear Called Paddington, in which he wrote: “This is my friend, and so are you!” — VNS


81.QT Vietnamese restaurant

81 Quan Thánh St.

Ba Đình Dist.

Hà Nội

Tel. 024-3938-7777

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