Phone: (09) 378 8783
Rating out of 10: Food: 8, Service: 7, Value: 7, Ambience: 8
Never having been to Hanoi, I might be mistaken. But I suspect the similarities between eating at a street food stall in Vietnam and dining in a Grey Lynn cafe on a cold Auckland winter's Sunday night are not striking.
For a start, there were few customers who were obviously Vietnamese. Mind you, any assessment as to the authenticity and appeal of an ethnic cuisine made on the basis of the number of natives present has always seemed a bit dubious. At any city famous for its indigenous food you will find hordes of locals queuing for the delights of Pizza4U or Bulk Burgers. Popular taste is not infallible.
If, however, the merits of Vietnamese food depend on fresh vibrant flavours delivered against the background of a very busy, cheerful atmosphere, then Cafe Viet delivers.
The customers - and the place was packed - were a very mixed bunch in age ranging from students to Winston Peters' political constituency and the reasons for the crowd became apparent as the evening progressed.
The menu is commendably simple, starters, mains and desserts with the ingredients adequately explained and providing just enough variety to present dilemmas of choice.
There is an array of rolls ranging from rice flour crepes to crispy spring rolls and variants such as spring rolls served in vermicelli pastry. My Cafe Viet versions were, as I hoped they would be, well stuffed with that appealing mix of diced pork and prawn with glass noodles and mushroom, and bursting with flavour enhanced by the tang of nuoc mam fish sauce.
Our other starter was equally successful, hot, crunchy bang bang prawns with a coconut and lemongrass dressing.
The main choice was more difficult. Enthusiasts maintain the acid test of a Vietnamese eating house is the pho bo, that well-flavoured beef and noodle soup, but having just spent some time on an Asian trip I felt noodled out. I was tempted by the novelty of the pig's ear lotus salad and attracted to the caramelised pork hot pot, but was more than happy with the grilled lemongrass pork.
This was a generous portion of grilled pork leg steak and a trio of tasty meatballs in sauce balanced by the blandness of steamed rice vermicelli and a crisp little salad. It was appetising and attractive to look at, as was our other choice of the grilled fish in banana leaf. The tarakihi was pleasingly browned but not dried out. The coconut and lemongrass dressing sat well with it and the grace notes of a couple of steamed tua tua were a well-considered addition.
We had, in fact, had sufficient food by this stage. Asian desserts are not high in my
popularity ranking and I'd seen enough durian to last a lifetime, but we were intrigued by the title of the "summer in a jar". It turned out to be a sort of trifle with layered sago pudding, coconut icecream and raspberries soaked in schnapps. It wasn't as overpoweringly sweet as some of its counterparts and proved a pleasant enough ending to a meal we had enjoyed.
The service was courteous and prompt without being rushed and the surroundings are unassuming but comfortable. The prices may be a little rich by Vietnamese street food standards but by Auckland rules they are very reasonable.
I have no idea whether it will appeal to the Hanoi cognoscenti but if you want a flavourful meal backed by a sensibly priced wine list, Cafe Viet is well worth considering.
Our meal: $108 for two starters, two mains, one dessert, two beers and one glass of wine.
Our wine: The list is not extensive but it offers a reasonable choice at good prices. The Soho pinot gris was fine and my Tiger beers went down most appropriately.
Verdict: It's easy to see why this unassuming little place is attracting such a following for couples and bigger groups looking for interesting food and a relaxed evening.