3 Hidden Foodie Gems of Hanoi

Since I have already written about the street food in Hanoi and its coffee joints, I might as well add a third — of three miscellaneous eateries all worth a visit.

The first and my favourite is Kem Trang Tien (35 Trang Tien), the oldest ice cream shop in Hanoi, and still going strong. After a hair-raising cyclo ride, weaving a hair’s breath away from oncoming cars, Trang, our trusty guide, stopped us at this local institution for a treat.

Located near the Opera House and a short trot from the Sofitel Metropole Hotel, it has little aesthetics to speak of and plenty of empty, sometimes greasy, open space. Two counters inexplicably far apart stood in the corners of this odd looking shop, one selling ice cream lollies on a stick, and another soft serve ice cream on a cone.

Trang explained that the shop was designed so that customers could drive all the way into the shop and up to the counter on the scooters and motor bikes, and buy the ice cream without once having to get off their vehicles. Hence the weird empty spaces within. What’s surprising too is that the shop becomes especially busy in winter when people enjoy the ice cream the most.

Kem Trang Tien makes their own ice creams in local Vietnamese flavours and sells nothing but. The ice lollies were recommended over the soft serve. Forget the chocolate flavour and go for the taro or coconut, or better yet, the glutinous rice ice cream or the mung bean. The rice ice cream made use of newly harvest grains, which exuded a subtle, fresh, green flavour with a slight, pleasing stickiness to it; the mung bean was lovely too – softly nutty, subtle and aromatic. Really good.

Another local favourite is Xoi Yen (35 Nguyen Huu Huan), a perpetually busy coffee shop on a street corner that is festooned with a great tangle of overhead electric cables. There is no enticing facade to speak of; it is entirely dominated by a messy open kitchen from where xoi xeo, its famous dish of glutinous turmeric rice, mung beans and fried shallots is prepared.

You’ll find the locals eating at the low tables along the walkway, but there is seating upstairs too if you want a more leisurely meal. Little English is spoken here, so it’s best to have a local friend help you along. As for the food, simple as it sounds, it is very tasty; add on an order of chicken or pork if you are particularly hungry. Locals flock here for breakfast as well as a quick lunch, and is quite an institution.

The final recommendation on my list of three is Koto Restaurant (59 Van Mieu Street). This can be accused of being touristy, but it deserves mention for the cause it supports — it is a not-for-profit restaurant that acts as a hospitality school for disadvantaged young Vietnamese.

Located near the Temple of Literature, the four-storey restaurant was crowded with mainly expats and tourists, but enjoyed ourselves here, with good food and very decent, inexpensive cocktails. We ordered the Vietnamese set menu and had a veritable feast — the banana flower and chicken salad, spring rolls, banana leaf grilled fish, and sweet and sour clam soup with pineapples and tomatoes were memorable. We added an order of banh xeo as well (truly delightful), and a stream of decently done classic cocktails, including two glasses of most enjoyable margarita.

Restaurant Review: Sugarhall’s Heady Rum Cocktails & Hearty Grills

Located in Amoy Street and right next to Jigger & Pony, Sugarhall is one of the most enjoyable, laid back restaurants I have visited in some time, funky without pretentiousness, suffused in an easy going, if not somewhat confused, vibe. While the front is dominated by a dazzlingly stocked bar, the dining area lies beyond, exuding a strange half-reggae half-barn feel. But nevermind — the people here, dressed in suitably farmer-inspired checkered shirts, are clearly comfortable with Sugarhall’s chosen identity.

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Rum cocktails and good grills are the reason you would go to Sugarhall. As it’s owned by the same people behind Jigger & Pony, you can rest assured the drinks there are top notch. With award winning mixologist Aki Eguchi, the brilliance behind Jigger & Pony, heading up Sugarhall’s drinks, you’ll be treated to cleverly original cocktails which are sumptuously balanced and using great ingredients.

Head over early in the evening for a sundowners, and sit at the bar for a yammer with the bartender while you wait for your friends. Good bars don’t leave a lone guest to fester over their drinks in silence, and Sugarhall is no different. While here, I managed to eke out a couple of tips from the bartender — who their spirits supplier was (and now mine), and how to DIY your own orange bitters at home even if they won’t divulge their own house secrets.

Between three of us that night, we managed to sample quite a few cocktails over dins. If you like yours fresh and zingy, Oriental Note (Bombay Sapphire East Gin, Dita Lychee, peach, lemon, ylang-ylang, prosecco) and Dark & Stormy (Gosling Black Seal Rum, lime, house-fermented ginger beer) are good choices.

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But I am not the sweet and fruity sort, and much prefer heady, potent libations with darker flavours. I loved the Perfect Storm (Cutty Sark Storm Scotch, CocchiAmericano, MancinoRosso, cherry, Angostura Bitters) and Bumbo Old Fashioned (El Dorado 12 YO Rum, demerara sugar, nutmeg tincture, cinnamon) — incidentally one of Eguchi’s personal faves. Sugarhall’s negroni, based on rum rather than gin, is good too, and if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, try the Monkey Julep, with banana-infused Monkey Shoulder Scotch, vanilla syrup, coconut water and pandan bitters. I don’t like the idea of drinking my bananas, but — live a little — this one turned out surprisingly drinkable. All cocktails are $22++.

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The food here is all about good grilling and laid back, easy eating. Chef Polo Seah, formerly of SKIRT steakhouse of W Hotel in Sentosa, handles the charcoal-fired grill, serving up hearty mains, of which the grass fed Dry-aged Rib-eye Steak (240g, $48++) with chimichurri and the 300g pork chop ($28++) which has been brined, are well recommended. It’s quite an experience to be served Sugarhall’s whole spring chicken ($32++) though. Stand back and be prepared for the full bird — head, beak, eyes, claws and all. If you get to carving it up, it’s really tasty too. Not recommended for your first date, though.

 Get some side dishes too. The chunky pumpkin that came with mozzarella and rum-soaked raisins was divine, and the grilled cauliflower ($12++) was earthy and more-ish with the deep tones of bacon puree, burnt butter, and hazelnuts. A very clever combination indeed.

Heading backwards, the appetizers we liked were madai ceviche ($18++), the hearty, flavoursome pork sausage ($14++) with cabbage and bonito butter and an rather precious dish of foie gras profiteroles ($18++) which came with foie gras ice cream and caramel.

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As much as the bar makes their own bitters and infuses their own spirits, the kitchen also makes plenty from scratch. “Everything that can be made in-house is made in this kitchen, from cold cuts, pâte, sausages and more. It’s the only way to maintain the quality and taste of the ingredients,” shares Seah. These include the bacon which he seasons with rosemary and lemon for a week, before bathing it in maple syrup for two days, and the duck prosciutto.

It’s best to take a cab here or travel by MRT, since you’ll be bound to do a fair amount of drinking. If you are driving though, note that its almost impossible to get streetside carpark here during weekday lunch. If it’s dinner, come early and you’re likely to get a spot – and a perfect excuse for a round of drinks first.

102 Amoy Street, Singapore 069922
Tel: (65) 6222 9102/ 9732 5607
http://www.facebook.com/sugarhallsg