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Spices Garden digs up VN's northern soul

Update: May, 19/2013 - 05:08
Room with a view: The simple yet elegant dining room is the perfect setting for an evening of indulgence, while the tables outside are also popular with lunchtime diners.

by Elisabeth Rosen

The sealed clay pot was filled with rice. Our server watched us gingerly try to crack the edges with a wooden mallet. Then she took the stick herself and smashed it open. Between the shards, the grains clung together in a perfumed disc, stained with turmeric and dotted with fragments of mushroom and ginger.

The dish is called com nieu and it's not on the ordinary menu; you have to order it 24 hours in advance. We ate it alongside caramel-glazed ribbons of pork – black pig, raised in the mountains of Sa Pa – and tender beef, flushed pink and strewn with sesame seeds. Beside the meat, in addition to the usual sidekicks of fresh cilantro and amber nuoc mam (fish sauce), the server placed a shot glass of wine made from fermented sticky rice. But this wasn't the stuff you gulp down with a shout of chuc suc khoe (Good Health). Unexpectedly sweet, with an underlying tannic current, the plum liquid was meant to be savoured.

Springing surprises: The five varieties of spring rolls offered a unique insight into Vietnamese cooking methods.

This is why Spices Garden deserves five stars.

The criteria for what makes a five-star restaurant are simple: take the best ingredients, prepare them well and present them in an inviting manner. Many mistake this to mean that the plates have to be fancy. But unlike Southern cuisine, which draws on a broad palette of colours and spices, Northern Vietnamese food resists dressing up. It's simple food, crafted from an environment of scarcity. At Spices Garden, Nguyen Thanh Van revels in that simplicity. She uses traditional methods - fish sauce, soy sauce, handfuls of fresh herbs – to coax exquisite flavours from even the plainest ingredients.

Van's new menu, which launched a few weeks ago, represents a 360 degree turnaround from the Spices Garden of the past. When Didier Corlou headed the restaurant in the 1990s, the cultural zeitgeist called for fusion: his roster of ingredients included both fish sauce and foie gras. This menu, on the other hand, barely ventures outside of Ha Noi, except for a smattering of dishes from the ethnic minority tribes in the mountainous regions farther north, like that awe-inspiring grilled black pork (VND515,000).

Yet while the heavily traditional menu might seem like a departure from Corlou's approach, in reality it pays tribute to his legacy. Corlou was one of the first chefs to invoke the vast culinary potential of Northern Vietnamese food, elevating these simple dishes into extraordinary meals.

Take, for example, nem ran or spring rolls (five for VND265,000), propped against each other like a pile of colourful kindling. Sheets of fresh pho spread around morsels of beef and herbs; finely chopped pork and mushrooms were compressed inside clear rice paper in traditional nem ran. A bounty of fresh herbs filled out the square plate. This is the same dish you would find on the street, albeit more carefully presented – Van's cooking doesn't try to distance itself from street food. Rather, she highlights the beauty in those everyday preparations.

Three of a kind: The succulent crispy prawns come with a diverse selection of dipping sauces, giving a distinctive flavour to every mouthful. VNS Photos Elisabeth Rosen

Most of the ingredients come from near Ha Noi, or from the mountains farther north. There are exceptions for regional specialties: vegetables organically grown in Da Lat, giant Mekong river prawns, Nha Trang lobster. On the menu, some dishes sound like excuses to charge for pricey ingredients, like abalone soup with goji berries and mushrooms (VND430,000). But in fact, that soup is one of the most pleasant ways to start your meal: a thick, almost glutinous broth, piled with juicy strips of abalone and mushroom.

The desserts (VND225,000) sneak in a bit of fusion, with young rice creme brulee and chocolate "runny cake" offered alongside traditional che. But the highlight is an invention of Chef Van's, in which she swathes buttery sticks of caramelised grilled banana in blankets of sticky rice and floats them on a sweet pond of peanuts and coconut milk – drawing on traditional flavours while elevating them to a new level.

The decor takes a breezily literal interpretation of the restaurant's name. Glass jars of spices sit tidily on shelves along the whitewashed walls, while miniature bonsai curl upwards from tabletop vessels and more extravagant blooms burst into flower throughout the dining room. The colour palette matches the leaves, with jade cushions and porcelain settings. At lunch, a comprehensive buffet with all the classic Hanoian dishes – from pho to fertile duck eggs – weaves through the centre of the room.

Working in the kitchen with Corlou, Van watched him convince Vietnamese staff that they should take pride in their food. As her cooking at Spices Garden attests, they certainly have something to be proud of. — VNS



Spices Garden


Address: Sofitel Legend Metropole Ha Noi, 15 Ngo Quyen Street

Tel.: +84 4 3826 6919 – Ext. 8500

Price Range: VND300,000-3,000,000

Comment: Five-star Northern Vietnamese food that highlights the beauty in traditional fare. Dishes to try: grilled Sapa black pork, com nieu, banana in sticky rice


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