By Lương Thu Hương
What do you do first when COVID-19 restrictions, that have kept you housebound for weeks, finally lift? Surely it must be to go and hang out with your friends and enjoy some tasty food or a cup of coffee as you watch the world go by.
As soon as social distancing measures were relaxed in Hà Nội early this month, my friends and I immediately took the opportunity to get together.
We met at a small restaurant nestled on Nguyễn Khắc Cần Street, a narrow, peaceful street between Hoàn Kiếm (Sword) Lake and Opera House. We made our decision, following a recommendation from one of my friends.
Right after arriving, we were able to spot the restaurant easily. It had a big signboard with the image of Chim Lạc, Việt Nam’s imaginary national bird, and also the symbol of Vietnamese ancient kingdom, Âu Lạc, the restaurant's namesake.
Despite its Vietnamese name, the restaurant is kitted out Western-style, with tables and chairs placed outside to serve customers who enjoy eating alfresco. It feels very European eating outside and, on a side note, by coincidence, it happens to be located beside an Italian restaurant and opposite the famed Hotel de l’Opera.
When we arrived, the tables outside had already been filled with customers. We went inside but the first floor of the restaurant was stuffy and dim, so we moved on to the second floor.
We took a table beside a big glass window which filled the restaurant with natural light and had a spectacular view of the hotel on the other side of the street and of trees swaying in a summer breeze.
The menu is overwhelming. It has a wide range of meals and drinks. Like the fusion of its Vietnamese name with its western design, Âu Lạc Club, offers a wide range of dishes that are both Vietnamese and Western.
At the waiter’s suggestion, we each chose a different dish. While I would love to try fettuccine pasta, my friends picked fried glass-noodles with crab meat, fried tofu with salted egg, and tom yum goong soup with rice. We chose prawn, avocado and mango salad, bread and butter, and deep-fried frog with garlic for sharing.
The bread and butter (VNĐ10,000/pax) came first. The bread was fresh with a crispy crust and creamy butter that immediately melt in our mouths.
The prawn avocado and mango salad (VNĐ169,000), as its name suggests, included chopped prawn, avocado, mango, lettuce and cherry tomatoes with lime dressing. I must say that it is a terrific, no-cooking-necessary, colourful dish. The creamy avocado, juicy cherry tomatoes and fresh leafy greens mixed so well with the freshness from the onion and the sweetness of the mango, and it was all tossed with a zesty lime dressing.
Fettuccine pasta is served with creamy sauce and bacon. VNS Photo Lương Hương
The fettuccine pasta (VNĐ169,000) looked very attractive in the creamy sauce, speckled with pieces of bacon. It is best eaten while it is still hot and soft. I slowly enjoyed my favourite dish by tossing the pasta in the heavy cream and feeling the texture while tasting cheesy sauce in my mouth. A serve at Âu Lạc Bar is quite huge, and the creamy paste quickly made me full. It’s a pity that I can’t finish it all.
While I chose an Italian food, my friend picked a Vietnamese dish -- stir-fried glass noodles with crab meat (VNĐ159,000). This is also best eaten hot.
The dish is stir-fried with crab meat; soft, translucent glass noodles; crunchy carrots; wood ear mushroom; bean sprouts, and spring onion.
“It’s very tasty,” my friend commented.
The Thai dish we ordered – tom yum goong soup with rice (VNĐ99,000) – offered a true taste of its home country. It featured all four famous Thai flavours: salty, sour, sweet and spicy. The dish, with its rich orange colour, was a fragrant blend of lemongrass, chilli, galangal, lime leaves, shallots, and lime juice with fish sauce.
Fried tofu with salted egg sauce. This dish features silken tofu fried until crispy on the outside and comes coated with a rich salted egg yolk sauce. VNS Photo Lương Hương
Another Vietnamese dish that we tried is fried tofu with salted egg sauce (VNĐ99,000). This featured silky tofu fried until pleasantly crispy on the outside and coated with a rich salted egg yolk sauce. The tofu was served with aromatic herbs including mint and cilantro.
Deep-fried frog with garlic (VNĐ169,000) added a little meat to finish off our meal. The crispy breaded frog meat tasted like chicken and paired well with the melted garlic butter sauce. Biting into a piece, I could feel the batter melt on the tip of my tongue, leaving a sweet and chewy frog meat with its rich flavour, that went well with aromatic herbs.
Food aside, Âu Lạc Bar also has great service. The waiter was attentive and knowledgeable, assisting us to choose our dishes. He also entertained us with his great sense of humour. Notably, when one of my friends left the restaurant without her bag, he chased after us to return it and gave us a big smile.
Unfortunately, Âu Lạc Bar has had to shut its door and does not offer delivery service when stricter social distancing measures are imposed in Hà Nội.
Hanoians will have to wait patiently for this period of social distancing to end before they can indulge in Âu Lạc Bar’s tasty treats. VNS