At last downtown Auckland seems to be coming alive. Over the past few weeks we've enjoyed a couple of decent meals near Britomart. First a good, fun birthday celebration at the Daikoku teppanyaki restaurant on Quay St and then, even better, an outstanding dinner at Cafe Hanoi.
Here, on the corner of Galway and Commerce streets, in an ancient bank building which, thank God, has escaped the wreckers' ball, sits the best restaurant I've been to in Auckland this year.
Cafe Hanoi has only been open four months, but it already has its own unique buzz. And it's not the usual luvvies frequenting this, the latest cool place, air-kissing across tables, but hungry eaters, more than half of them men, in search of a decent meal.
Hanoi doesn't take bookings at night (unless you have a party of eight or more), probably figuring they can get more people through that way, so we started our evening on the corner of the bar. Here, perched on high stools, we got a good look at the chefs (some possibly Vietnamese) and watched with awe as the wait staff joked their way through a massive workload.
Our wine arrived fast, and by the time our first courses were ready we'd been transferred to a table in what they call the conservatory - a sort of veranda space dimly reminiscent of my trip to Hanoi's Metropole Hotel many years ago. With the evening light filtering through the venetian blinds and sending stripes across the peeling, rough painted walls of the old building, we could have been back there amid all that faded glory.
The food, too, brought back memories. We all started with soup: Hanoi's famous pho bo beef soup for Dinah, prawn soup for me and duck for Brian. All three were fragrant and delicious, though highly improved, for me, by a good splash of the fish sauce and squeezed lime accompaniments that arrived on a long, elegant plate. The pho beef arrived with its slice of raw meat cooked on the spot by a ladle of boiling broth poured over it. Brian's duck soup was unexpectedly chilli hot, but after getting acclimatised he hoovered it up manfully.
Next came the open shrimp wontons, which I never encountered in Vietnam, but which were a delight all the same.
They had been deep-fried flat then anointed with a spoonful of chopped pickled shrimp and tomato. If only there had been a little more shrimp it would have been perfect.
Next came our "shared main dishes", which again veered away from the food I'd experienced in Hanoi. But then, what I do know after three weeks there, is that the Vietnamese will cook anything - and frequently do. So who's to turn up their nose at a caramelised pork belly hotpot? Certainly not Brian, who had to be encouraged to share his succulent pieces of pork, slow-cooked until you could bite through the skin as easily as through the fat and flesh.
Meanwhile Dinah and I happily dipped in and out of our prawns with tamarind paste, wok-seared squid, savoy and red cabbage salad and rice. While the prawns arrived with peeled bodies and just enough tangy tamarind paste to make them thrill and the squid was cooked to the moment it hits its tender spot (and not a second longer), the salad was a delightful surprise. Fine-sliced, crisp and zinged up by Vietnamese basil, mint and coriander, it was dressed with a light and tangy vinegar and palm sugar dressing that made us wonder why we routinely douse our salad greens in heavy oils that turn them limp in minutes.
Last came the sago pudding. This concoction with yoghurt and palm sugar caramel was utterly perfect, even for this boarding school survivor.
Altogether this was a near-perfect night out. The service was fast, attentive and fun, the general buzz of the place gathered us all up, the food was a brilliant mix of old Hanoi and modern with all those sweet, sour and salty tastes and "barely cooked" Vietnamese-style wok cooking I remember so clearly combined with a few modern tastes and a short but well-chosen wine list.
On the downside, though well-priced by Auckland restaurant standards, Cafe Hanoi is pretty expensive for Vietnamese food.
Rating out of 10
Our meal: $211.00 for three soups, two starters, three main courses, one salad, one dessert and five glasses of wine.
Wine list: Short but varied. Something great for everyone but again, relatively expensive.
Verdict: Authentic-tasting and delicious Vietnamese food, expertly presented and served in a simple, stylish setting. Recommended.