|Cocktail o'clock: The hotel's Summit Lounge serves up delightful chilled cocktails from an unforgettable vantage point. Sofitel Plaza File Photo
Offering sophisticated takes on Chinese classics, followed by an uber-chic cocktail lounge with unrivalled views of the WestLake, the Sofitel Plaza's Ming Restaurant gives guests a dining experience they are unlikely to forget.
by Jak Phillips
They say the way to a man's heart is through his stomach and as I considered the Ming Restaurant feast working its way through my digestive system, it's fair to say I was smitten.
The romantic setting – I was enjoying a post-prandial cocktail with a stunning dusk view overlooking the West Lake – may well have contributed to the consummation of the unspeakable love between a man and a restaurant, but it's fair to say the food was the biggest factor.
Nestled snugly above the marble-clad lobby of the Sofitel Plaza Hotel, Ming Restaurant offers Chinese food with a difference.
Like the food, the decor is tasteful and the careful balance between classic oriental architecture and modern style is evident as soon as you reach your table.
Dark wood, possibly mahogany, fashions the tables and decorative birdcage screens, while the light touch of 21st century chic is provided by giant glass windows and cream furnishings.
Our meal begins with a bang as a huge Beijing duck is wheeled out to greet us and a chef busily begins to carve the glistening skin from this crispy canard.
The skin, together with flesh and a cress of crunchy vegetables, finds its way into our opening course of Beijing pancakes.
With the option of hoisin or chilli sauce to round off the flavour, the tightly rolled pancakes pack a real punch - perfectly moist but retaining a satisfying crunch.
After making light work of the duck, we skip merrily onto deep-fried garoupa and again the presentation is as eye-catching as the ingredients. Thinly sliced thickets of chilli, sweet chilli, spring onion and julienned ginger add flavoursome finesse to the dish, and just like yin and yang, the succulent flakes of garoupa sat perfectly with the brittle batter.
|On a roll: Ming's BBQ Beijing Duck was a standout selection, offering the perfect start to our oriental adventure. — Photos Bui Hoang Long
Sticking to the seafood theme, our next offering is sauteed babilon seashells (snails) in a spicy sauce. I can't profess to being much of an expert on snails but they look fantastic – wrapped in ginger leaf with a healthy dollop of sauce – and it's the condiment which ensures this chewy treat stays tasty till it's time to swallow. The seashells are one of the standout dishes on July's 'Splendorous Summer' menu which, despite its unappetising name, offers a host of high-end authentic Chinese dishes including baked sea eels and crunchy chicken cartilage.
As for the seashells, this is one of the restaurant's signature dishes and comes highly recommended by restaurant manager Mrs Nhi, who, having just returned from a summer sojourn to Paris, knows a fair amount about the mollusc morsels. At the helm since the eatery opened in 1997, Nhi has witnessed a great deal of changes, both to Ha Noi and the restaurant, but she says the staff came into their own as purveyors of Chinese cuisine under the tutelage of Beijing master chef Peter Li.
After a phalanx of flesh and fish it's high time we sample a wider selection of nature's delights and these duly arrive in the form of fried rice with dry conpoy, followed by sauteed spinach with celery and salted egg. The fragrant rice arrives garnished with a beautiful orchid and despite the pungent smells, I'm assured the orchid is rendered odourless so as not to interfere with the sensory merits of the dish. Steaming and gleaming, the lean spinach offers light relief from what has so far been an indulgent session of eating, while the salted egg is surprisingly powerful, tasting remarkably similar to feta cheese. As is the trademark of Chinese cuisine, the celery adds a welcome solidity to proceedings.
Despite chomping through five courses with relish I'm delighted to find the best has been saved to the end. A stunning visual spectacle, the 'cloudy pudding' of mango and green tea mousses served in a halved dragon fruit arrives in a seductive shroud of smog. Smoke billows across our table as the innovative combination of hot water and dry ice in a saucer beneath the fruit ensures this is a dessert we're unlikely to forget in a hurry. At VND250,000 per person, the pudding is one of the pricier sweets you are likely to sample in Ha Noi and has to be pre-ordered, but for a special occasion it provides a fitting finale.
Fortunately for me though, there is even more to come. Eager to relax after our feast but unwilling to leave, we decide to visit the hotel's Summit Lounge, which sits 22 floors up offering unparalleled panoramic views of the West Lake. As the sun dips below the horizon and the thousands of lights encircling the water begin to take effect, I'm served something I've never even heard of before: an ice cream cocktail.
|Perfect finish: The Icerish Coffee cocktail is an ideal alternative to the traditional after-dinner coffee or liqueur.
The brainchild of bar manager Arnaud Jouassain, these refreshing revelations were painstakingly developed by his team in conjunction with their HCM City-based ice cream supplier Bellany. Ideal for beating the Ha Noi summer heat, the 10-cocktail selection (all VND210,000) on the Summer Chilled menu features a mixture of modernised classics and some truly inspired innovation. The three we sampled before tipsiness took its toll were La Vie en Rose (Rose sorbet, sparkling wine and rose petal), Icerish Coffee (Irish coffee ice cream, Jameson's, espresso coffee, steamed-milk foam and coffee beans) and the flaming B-50 Two (Bailey's ice cream, Khalua and Cointreau). According to Arnaud, the Mojito Frappe (a classic mojito with a mound of sorbet) has proved the biggest seller, but it's his heat-seeking B-50 Two which is the biggest source of pride – "Some of the drinks were not so tricky to put together, but we put a lot of thought into this one and are delighted with the results."
As I finish the last of my melted mixer and cast a final glance over the now majestically lit West Lake, it's easy to understand why this place proves a hit. There are very few all-encompassing dining experiences in Ha Noi, but with the sophisticated food and mind-blowing vista, Ming Restaurant offers a feast for the eyes and the tastebuds. — VNS
Add: 1 Thanh Nien Road,
Ba Dinh Dist, Ha Noi
Tel: (+84) 4/38238888
Hours: 11am-2pm / 5.30pm-10pm
Comment: Elegant Chinese cuisine with innovation galore.