Bean curd is an unlikely seductor, but reviewer Kim Knight is wowed by the tofu - and more - at Britomart stalwart, Cafe Hanoi.
When Cafe Hanoi first opened, "shared plates" were novel enough to warrant inverted commas from restaurant reviewers.
The no bookings policy was a challenge and so was the idea that diners might properly pay for prawns, angus beef, fresh herbs and stocks that take skill and experience to perfect.
"Though well-priced by Auckland restaurant standards, Cafe Hanoi is pretty expensive for Vietnamese food," sniffed 2010 Canvas.
Time flies when you're having pho. Auckland has finally grown up enough to (almost) stop conflating "Asian" with "cheap" and, in a couple of months, Britomart's Cafe Hanoi will celebrate its 10th birthday with a shift next door into new premises.
Once more, for old time's sake?
Cafe Hanoi takes table bookings now but we had not planned ahead. On a Friday night, there were just two options - the big, shared chef's bench or an intimate corner in the long, narrow space off the main dining room. We chose the latter and regretted it immediately. That was us, the old people, ruining the atmosphere with cellphone torches.
Outstanding service steered us towards an outstanding duck stir-fry ($35). The poultry's fat and skin layers were deliciously intact. A sweet smokiness had permeated the broccolini and the carrots (purple - but only after I'd moved a candle to check). It was all very nice and then we hit little compressed discs of crispy fried rice. Think pork crackling for vegetarians and my new favourite carb.
Beef short-rib ($36) had the requisite cinnamon and star anise aromatics but needed longer in the oven. You want to cut this with a cliched spoon, not a knife. The pork in a crispy coconut pancake ($25) was also a little chewier than I expected but probably I should just get over myself. This is a beast of a feast that looks delicate but then you take portions of the meat, shrimp and bean sprout-stuffed pancake and stuff them into a lettuce leaf with a bunch of herbs. Fresh, fun, messy and best eaten with someone you love in a section of the room where people can't see how many bean sprouts are now on your lap.
You get to use your hands quite a bit at Cafe Hanoi. In summer (or lunchtime) I'd definitely start with a rice paper roll, but it was that fortnight that Auckland was doing winter, so we opted for warm ginger-chilli sticky, perilla leaf-wrapped plugs of beef and lemongrass. They made me think of Nanam's wagyu take on the Filipino longanisa, which made me think about just how much tastier Auckland has become in the last decade. Remember when you had to google perilla? (Soft, large leaves, from the mint family, etc.)
I wish we'd been a bigger table so we could have ordered more food. The wok-seared market fish was ling, which I feel sure was something my nan used to buy smoked to bake in milk and serve with mashed potatoes. How much better would it be with turmeric and ginger and rice noodles? In the 1970s, we used to call sago pudding "frog's egg soup". Cafe Hanoi's comes with white chocolate yoghurt and banana caramel. I am so grateful to be eating in these enlightened, banana caramel-soaked times.
Coffee is a significant export earner for Vietnam, which supplies an estimated 40 per cent of the world's robusta beans. I don't normally drink the stuff in the evening but I can definitely make an exception for a custardy-sweet Vietnamese coffee pot de creme with Chantilly cream and a chocolate five-spice macaron, $13. Chocolate delice was also delish ($13, very dark, with a sour cherry-that-tasted-like-berry sorbet).
I've saved the best for last. Co-owner Krishna Botica says the new Cafe Hanoi menu is likely to feature a greater nod to the French influences on Vietnamese cuisine but (at the time of writing) the lemongrass and chilli-stuffed tofu ($17) was a keeper.
This is tofu to convert the most ardent opponent of bean curd. The outer shell is slightly crisp, the interior sublimely soft and it comes with oyster mushrooms and wilted spinach - a creamy-meaty-bitter unlikely seductress. "Really?" said James, when I ordered it. But, afterwards, he said it was like thinking you don't like somebody and then having the best sex you've ever had.
Excelsior Building, cnr Galway St and Commerce St, Britomart.
Ph: (09) 302 3478
We spent: $232.80 for two