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Food and drinks defined by a quirkiness

Update: June, 29/2014 - 18:11
Whimsical: Ham Hanh's decor is deliberately unconventional.

An offbeat cafe stays true to the Onion Cellar's alternative culture vision with a bizarre cocktail menu and culinary experiments that do not disappoint a discerning palate. Elisabeth Rosen tucks in.

Walking into the converted teahouse on Doi Can Street, you feel like you've stumbled across a playground for adults. Colourful cushions litter the floor; a semi-open courtyard is set with neon folding chairs, at least half of which are mounted on the wall as decoration. One customer sips a mountain of lemon-hued ice, while another naps beside a stack of notebooks.

The Ham Hanh or Onion Cellar, an alternative culture collective that organizes events like concerts and film screenings, now has its own cafe. In keeping with the Onion Cellar aesthetic, the decor is offbeat and improvised: co-owners Mathias Rossignol and Vu Hong Linh set up everything in a month, combining objects from secondhand shops with furniture Rossignol built. The whimsical colour scheme started with the ceiling fans, which came a pallid green but are now a vibrant lavender. It ended up extending to everything, from the vintage wooden chairs to the car tires that support floor-level tables.

Unlike many cafes in Ha Noi, which lure clientele seeking a luxurious atmosphere, the Onion Cellar welcomes those on an artist's budget. As at Onion Cellar events, students get a 10 per cent discount. The high-speed internet connection is another enticement, and also makes it possible to organise Skype Q&As after future film screenings.

Improvised: The ‘bread pizza' is actually grilled cheese sprawled over hearty slabs of cereal bread.

The bar offers one of the most inventive cocktail menus in the capital. Drinks inspired by literature and music verge from quirky to downright bizarre. This is the only cafe in Ha Noi - and possibly in the world - where you can get a drink called "The Smell of Today is Sweet Like Breastmilk in the Wind" (VND80,000). Those with more conservative palates can sip "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (VND80,000), a take on Hemingway's favoured mojito with mint leaves, kumquat and pineapple, or "The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship" (VND80,000), which features jasmine flower tea, gin and grenadine in a nod to the setting of Casablanca.

The food, rest assured, is less experimental. Rossignol and Linh, who have no formal training in cooking, have cobbled together a menu of simple, loosely French-inspired fare. Like the decor, the food is a work of improvisation: at times inspired, at times slightly lacking finesse.

Ham Hanh

Address: 170 Doi Can

Tel.: 0906212907

Hours: 8:30am-11:30pm

Price Range: VND100,000-250,000

Dishes to try: Onion soup, Ha Noi brasserie plate, bread pizza

Comment: Quirky cafe from The Onion Cellar culture collective

Many of the best dishes involve the eponymous bulb. French onion soup (VND7,000 for a small bowl, VND60,000 for a large bowl with cheese and toast) is spectacular, a rich, complex broth that results from hours of caramelisation. Onion lends flavour to the creamy mashed potatoes on the Ha Noi brasserie plate (VND100,000), which also includes bread, onion soup and thin slices of jambonneau from a local butcher. There's even an onion cocktail, "A Round, Human Tear" (VND100,000), a cheeky reference to the Gunter Grass novel that inspired The Onion Cellar's name. Balanced with rum, honey and lemongrass, the caramelised onion disguises itself surprisingly well, adding a subtle touch of sweetness whose provenance a blindfolded taster might never guess.

The "bread pizza" (VND50,000-80,000) is also worth trying, although it's less a pizza than a grilled cheese sprawled over hearty slabs of cereal bread, marbled with zucchini and tomato and bits of pineapple. There's an endearingly homemade quality to this food: you feel like you're in the kitchen of a slightly eccentric relative whose idea of an exciting Saturday afternoon is experimenting with hummus and marjoram pesto.

An experiment: Pasta with marjoram pesto is served with a salad that is more of a garnish-cherry tomatoes on top of lettuce and diced cucumber.

Luckily, those culinary experiments are generally successful. The creamy hummus comes with fresh pita from a local supplier (VND35,000); that marjoram pesto makes an assertive sauce for fusilli and jambonneau (VND80,000). Occasionally they feel more amateur. The cocktail salad (VND70,000) is a colourful heap of fresh ingredients - mango, purple cabbage, shrimp, avocado - but they're drowned in so much mayonnaise you can barely tell what they are. And while many dishes are advertised as coming with salad, what you get is more a garnish: a few cherry tomatoes on top of a lettuce leaf, a scattering of diced cucumber. Still, as The Onion Cellar proves with its experimental programming, the concept is what really matters. — VNS

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