Phone: (09) 376 6107
Rating out of 10: Food: 7, Service: 9, Value: 7, Ambience: 8
It was a night full of surprises. First we were surprised to be taken out to Le Vietnamese Kitchen's back room, and find it warmer and buzzier than in the front. It was pretty, too, with some cool foliage and decorative statues scattered around that gave us the feel of eating in a tent.
Surprise number two was to look around and find a reassuring number of Vietnamese diners at the tables.
The service was amazing. From the time we arrived we were watched over by at least two Vietnamese waiters. They were almost all men, terrifically handsome and good at their job. An attentive young man from Hanoi brought the menus, advised me not to order a fourth large plate and to go with the five smaller ones, and brought them all in the right order.
Le Vietnamese's prices are surprisingly high, especially if you've been to Hanoi, as we have. Small plates are about $12 to $18, and main courses can cost up to a whopping $34 - for a plate of shaking beef. On the other hand, if you drink beer rather than wine, as we did, the overall price is reasonable. Beer works so much better with the chilli and light curry notes of Vietnamese cuisine, and the restaurant has an excellent beer selection.
And we all felt much better next day.
There were also those alluring touches that good Asian restaurants do so well: tiny salads with the entrees, larger dishes dolled up with flowers, leaves and vegetables later on.
So off we went with a plate each of the crispy rolls (one vegetarian, one laced with minced pork), a bowl of beef pho, coconut prawns and fish cakes. Starting with the most disappointing: the slightly overcooked prawns were tasty but dry, and the vegetarian crispy rolls were plain dull. But the pork and vegetable rolls were terrific (shows what a little meat will do), the fish cakes were tasty and tender, and best of all was the beef pho, which our friends had recently enjoyed in Hanoi. This fragrant and delicate version, which was laced with a couple of chunks of beef and just enough tasty fat and spices, was a stunner. Now we could see why so many tables were full of Vietnamese diners.
By then our poor waiter was rushed off his feet trying to fit all the plates on the tiny table, bringing extra bowls for the pho and rice on top of our entree plates. He was so caring I wondered if my cover was blown. It was only later, when he was crestfallen after being berated by someone for some mistake, that I realised Le Vietnamese insist on a seriously high standard of service.
We moved on to the flaming prawns. They were served in a scraped-out fresh coconut with noodles and bean sprouts, and were set on fire as our waiter approached. Again, the prawns were overcooked and the accompanying vegetables in their coconutty sauce were dull. Indeed, the vegetarian dishes were disappointingly light on herbs, spices and chilli, which is where you need it most.
Meanwhile, we carnivores were in heaven. Brian's pork belly was great, as was the shaking beef which was a beautifully tender fillet, expertly cooked and seasoned. There was also plenty of it which, given how much it costs at the supermarket, justified the price.
After all that, we shared two desserts. First the crepe, which proved that cultures once ruled by the French really know how to make pastries. This crepe was light and fluffy, stuffed with apple and berries and finished with a creamy coconut sauce. Brilliant. The mango sago was creamy and sweet with plenty of mango: we'd go back for that alone.
Our meal: $248 for five beers, five entrees, three main dishes, a papaya salad and two desserts.
(09) 376 6107 A reasonably comprehensive list plus an excellent choice of beers
Verdict: Le Vietnamese Kitchen deserves to be run off its feet. The food is authentic with some superb French flourishes and outstanding Vietnamese examples, like the beef pho. Service is excellent, the atmosphere upbeat and friendly, and though some dishes are expensive, you could eat here on a budget if you tried.