Address: Ground Floor, Excelsior Building: Cnr Commerce and Galway streets
Phone: 09 302 3478
It's so heartening to see the number of new eateries springing up in Auckland. One area expanding rapidly is the Britomart precinct where a number of new establishments promise to liven up the restaurant and bar scene. One such place, open barely two weeks, is Cafe Hanoi.
Located behind a discreet red door in the majestic Excelsior building lies the latest venture of business partners Tony McGeorge, of Ponsonby Social Club and Krishna Botica of Prego. The space has been restored and the ambience is a mix of Vietnamese chic and grungy downtown loft.
The menu explains it has been designed for a shared style of eating. I'm nervous my dinner date, whom I've known only as long as Hanoi has been open, may find my communal approach to dining (read, I have a tendency to dig into other people's food without always remembering to check with them first) alarming. But there, in black and white, is permission to do so.
We take turns at ordering dishes from the "shared plates" until we reach a total of seven and decide that's a lucky number to stop at.
First to arrive were the Crystal Bay prawns. Smothered in an oily tamarind paste these banana prawns, peeled but with head still intact, were succulent, firm and got even better as they cooled off - we were able to get the full blast of their flavour which was sweet, sour, tangy and mildly spicy all at the same time.
Next up were the sweet pickled shrimp wontons. An interesting idea - a crisp wonton wrapper is left open with the shrimp mix as a topping.
One of the great aspects to Vietnamese food is that it's always a combination of texture and taste. You'll often find the crunch of nuts, fresh vegetables or herbs with a softer ingredient and all combining for a taste and texture explosion in your mouth.
These wontons went partway there and the pickled shrimp mix was flavourful but the problem was that the teaspoon of it placed in the centre meant that, for the most part, we were crunching through a plain cooked wonton wrapper. We wanted to be able to pop the whole thing in our mouth to get the flavours and texture all at once.
The remaining dishes arrived in a flurry. The skewers of chicken thigh took me right back to the street food of Vietnam. With two of the quintessential ingredients, fish sauce and kaffir lime, providing their pungent and fragrant flavours alongside the aromatic lemongrass, there was no doubt that chef Jason van Dorsten knows what he's doing in preparing authentic Vietnamese cuisine.
A Savoy and red cabbage salad packed full of Vietnamese basil and mint and coriander and dressed with a sweet and salty palm sugar vinegar was refreshing and zingy.
The hot pot of caramelised pork shoulder with water spinach delighted me but disappointed the dinner date - too fatty and dry for his taste - but we were in agreement on the absolute highlight; the peppered shaking beef. It's fashioned on the celebratory dish "thit bo luc lac" where hunks of beef are marinated then seared in a hot wok, shaking the wok to move them around as they cook (hence the name), then served on a bed of watercress and red onion. Cafe Hanoi's version uses a tender cut of Angus beef and I'm telling you, they were that soft they were like beef pillows. With the peppery watercress, wafer thin red onion, fried shallots and dressing, this dish was a superb balance of the hot, sour, salty and sweet combo that Vietnamese cuisine is known for.
To finish, I ordered the sago pudding served with yoghurt cream and drizzled in palm sugar caramel. I had to fight him for every last drop of caramel.
Cafe Hanoi is an all-round gem. The design is clever, the staff are fabulous and the food is innovative enough to be interesting but not so as to veer too far from authentic Vietnamese street food. But best of all? It's made for sharing.
From the menu: Open prawn wontons $8.50, hot pot of caramelised pork shoulder $20, peppered soy shaking beef with watercress $26.50, skewered chicken thigh with kaffir lime & lemongrass $14.50, tamarind prawns $26.50, coconut creme caramel $10.50, sago pudding $10.50.
Drinks: Fully licensed, Tiger beer on tap.