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.

Where To Drink Coffee Like The Locals In Hanoi

If there’s a city with a proud cafe culture, it is Hanoi. The locals are immensely proud of their local coffee, and sip it all day in their inimitable style. I wish Singapore was as proud of their own coffee – local coffee that is. (Yes, the one you brew in a sock, while wearing your blue striped pyjama pants.) In nooks and crannies, tucked deep inside narrow ‘tube houses’ or in the upper levels of old French colonial buildings are a hidden world of coffee joints. They are vibrant, happening places crowded with mostly young patrons, and few tourists. They aren’t easy to find, but our guide Trang of Hanoi Voyages brought us to a couple, having found out that we were ardent foodies.

The action is hidden away upstairs at Cafe Giang

Her favourite and a local institution is Cafe Giang (39 Nguyen Hu Huan) — pronounced ‘Jac’, with a soft ‘J’ — opened since 1946 and still going strong. You can easily miss its dark, distressed entrance way, dismissing it as an empty, derelict passage. But that’s because the action is deep down the narrow corridor, and up an even narrower staircase.

The kitchen of Cafe Giant. The cafe itself is up the stairs. Er…do you see the stairs?

As you reach the top landing, suddenly sunlight pours down from a skylight and you’re in a lush, plant-filled landing, crowded with customers. In typical Vietnamese style, seats and tables are low. Don’t wait to be seated – just head to the nearest available.

Typical Vietnamese coffee is served here, so potent it’ll keep you up for the next few days of touring. And it’s good, believe me. ‘Gao’ until cannot ‘gao’. But what most people come here for is its egg coffee – a supremely thick coffee with condensed milk and an egg. It doesn’t sound particularly enticing initially, but you don’t really taste the egg much; it acts more like a thickener, and the texture is rich, ‘puffy’ and somewhat custard-like. It’s really thick, sweet and delectable; rich enough to be a dessert. Definitely a must-try for the food adventurer when visiting Hanoi.

The iconic egg coffee of Hanoi

Another delightful coffee joint we visited was Cong Caphe . A very successful local coffee chain, its name makes reference to the Viet Cong who fought the Americans and South Vietnamese in the American War (Americans calls it the Vietnam War). But it’s all about coffee and a fun experience at Caphe Cong, not propaganda or politics.

Bucket, transistor radio, enamel cups and military style camouflage chairs on the terrace of Cong Caphe
The leatherbound menu; the loud hailer was commonly used to rally the people during the American War in Vietnam

We visited the outlet at Ma May Street, which occupies a narrow colonial building, with a crumbling but still beautiful European facade. Inside, the cafe is decked out in vintage wooden furniture with clever details that play up the military/retro theme — a bucket or wok for a lampshade, a green leatherbound menu, retro photos and posters on the wall. It’s rather worn out and a little dusty inside, but that’s the look. We head to the upstairs balcony, with distressed walls as a backdrop, overlooking the street and a tangled mess of electric cables. It’s a quaint and atmospheric place to wind down after a day’s exploration.

The mung bean smoothie – white fluffy one at the back – was pretty fabulous.

Drinks here are typically Vietnamese in style given a modern yet authentic spin — a delectable mung bean smoothie with coconut milk, a rice smoothie, espresso with condensed milk, Vietnamese coffee and happily, even cocktails. Sit down, relax and let the sun set, casting the terrace in weakening light. With the mess below and the worn out walls around, there is something quite charming about this. And it’s a really nice way to soak in the local youthful pop culture of Hanoi, of which this cafe is very much a part.

For more about Hanoi’s food, read about the food tour of Hanoi’s Old Quarter which Trang brought us to as well.

(This trip was my own personal holiday, and nothing written in here was sponsored or paid for in any way.)

Ginett – Stylish Bistro, Good Food, Fabulous Prices

I have been driving past Ginett every day since it first opened. The route home from my daughter’s school brings me past this restaurant along Middle Road with its eye-catching black-framed windows and glittering bar with a heap of wine glasses suspended overhead. Very NYC in style and most inviting indeed. I always told myself I would pop in one of these days. And I finally did over the weekend.

In a word, Ginett is a fabulous restaurant to linger over a lazy meal. Its interiors is Paris-inspired but with the laid back vibe of a Melbourne establishment; service is friendly and warm. Tables are arranged cosily, but with enough distance to be comfortable, and most importantly, the food is good and the prices even better.

If you want to have a light nibble with friends, order the 1 metre cheese board ($56), with four cheeses and four charcuterie, many of which are made inhouse. The chorizo in particular is very good. Pair it with a bottle of wine, or a parade of their very well-priced wines by the glass (from $6). As the restaurant sources and imports its wines directly, they have been able to keep prices at the sweet spot. Ginett’s more than 70 labels come from France and includes some unusual labels. Bottles start from $30.

The one-metre long cheese board. Easily the most generously filled cheese board in town.

For brunch, the deceptively named Duck Gravy is soul simple food elevated to divine levels of comfort. The description in the menu falls short of reality: expect two sunny-side eggs on more than duck gravy, but a most generous heap of pulled duck cooked confit style (I think). It was a juicy, tasty, savoury slop but perfectly comforting. A must-have that tastes a whole lot better than it looks, it is also big enough for sharing. The eggs benedict was not that great though — the sauce was rather dry and the yolks not as runny as it should be.

Duck gravy – the name is deceptively vague and it is way more delicious than it looks.

Ginett’s signature dishes are the grilled meats cooked over apple wood charcoal. Have the ribeye or striploin (300g for sharing) at $42. We also tried the rotisserie chicken — it was all right but the breast meat was dry and overall, a little under seasoned.

For dessert, we had the profiteroles which, rather than filled in the classic way with cream, was sliced in half, with scoop of ice cream in between. I plan to try the baba au rhum the next time we head there.

At the end of the day, the stars were the cheese board and the wines. It is worth noting Ginett has about 30 types of cheeses in total, and next door, its sister outlet 25 Degrees offers good burgers.

The wines and cheeses are listed on the board on the wall.

Look out for Executive Chef Emmanuel Xu, a unique figure in the industry. From China, he had worked in Paris for 11 years, then back to Beijing for a few more years and now he helms the kitchen at Ginett. He is also the man behind the burgers at 25 Degrees.

Good to know: Ginett is open daily from 7am till late; last orders are particularly late — 10.30pm from Sundays to Thursdays, and 11.30pm on Fridays and Saturdays. On 23-27 May, award-winning French cheese master Gérard Poulard will be at Ginett to demonstrate the art of cheese pairings. He’ll be bringing along over 30 cheeses from boutique cheesemakers France.

200 Middle Road
Singapore 188980
Tel: (65) 6809 7989

5 Reasons Why Taste is A Grocer Like No Other

Taste Singapore is not the sort of supermarket you’d go to look for your usual tau-gay, hae bee and pork bone (“One kg please”). Cradled in the Holland Village enclave within the Raffles Medical building, this newly opened gourmet grocer is the place to go for gourmet foodstuffs, but be prepared for correspondingly premium prices. We were really excited to find unusual goods here, with a different supermarket experience to match. Here are five reasons this supermarket stands out above the rest in our books.

1. You can grab a Spinelli’s coffee and sip while you shop. The Spinelli’s counter sits right by the down-escalator as you enter the shop.

Talented florist and former fashion journalist Yi Lian Ng explains flowers at her counter within Taste

2. There’s a super talented florist in the house as well. Yi Lian Ng’s floral arrangements are stunning, and definitely on a stylish tangent off from the conventional bouquets. Come here to pick a gift or the get a table arrangement for your dinner party while you shop for your groceries.

3. There’s a Japanese restaurant SENS in the middle of the supermarket. You can pick  your meal from the menu, or get your favourite cut of meat from the butchery section of the supermarket and have the chef cook it for you at an additional cost of $8 per 100g. How cool is that?

Essential must-know’s at Taste

4. Go to Taste Singapore for a gastronomic evening out. Book the table by the wine section, then wander around and pick out a favourite cut of meat at the butcher section, and ask them to cook it for you with some simple sides. Head over to the deli and pick out your cheeses and ask them to lay it out on a cheese board; and pick your bottle of wine from the wine section. You get the idea. All this will be brought to your table at the wine area and you can you tuck into your meal in the middle of the supermarket. Not enough? Have a wander around again, and pick up more food.

Some cheeses from the cheese room. Our favourites were the pesto cheese (the green one) and the truffle cheese (bottom left). Lovely stuff.
He who brings Croatian cheese into Singapore for the very first time. The PAG cheese is well worth having on your cheese board this weekend.

5. There are lots of fabulous finds on the shelves of Taste. The Cheese Room offers a fantastic range of cheeses including Croatian PAG goat cheeses (probably the first time Croatian cheese is available on retail here), a moreish pesto cheese, and a truffle cheese; while next to it, the wine section includes a particular lovely, floral French gin from Cognac. The  meat section has a good selection of wagyu, and the bakery offers breads made on site fresh from the oven. If you need bread customised (eg. gluten free, etc), call in a couple days in advance.

What your weekend dinner could look like at the communal table at the wine section. You can book this table for your own dinner at the supermarket.
This floral gin is one of the most elegant I’ve tasted in a while.

118 Holland Avenue, Basement 1, Singapore 278997
Tel: 6264 8389

Blue Sails In The Sunset – On Board The NEW Aqua Luna II

The Chinese junk with the large red sails that you often see plying the waters of the Victoria harbour is a sight to behold and one that almost every tourist visiting Hong Kong, is familiar with.

Last night, along with a handful of privileged media, we boarded its new sibling – the Mighty Ming Dragon christened the Aqua Luna II, as it unfurled its blue and white dragon (a motif often seen on Chinese Ming dynasty porcelain) that now trademarks its sails. In Chinese culture the dragon is a legendary creature; a symbol of power and good luck for all it touches, favoured by Chinese royalty.

Plied with champagne and dim sum canapés from the Aqua Group’s newly opened Dim Sum Library, we boarded this beautiful vessel that is slightly larger than it’s predecessor (measuring 29 metres in length and able to hold up to 80 guests on its two decks) and took off with it on it’s maiden voyage at sunset, as it gleamed and glided across the Hong Kong evening skyline.

This truly enchanting and unforgettable experience is probably one of the most precious memories that I will always cherish, especially when it comes time to say farewell to Hong Kong’s charms and its fragrant harbour.

Behind the construction of this second vessel, which took two whole years to complete, is Sifu (master craftsman) Au, who is now 86 years old. Sifu is said to have built more wooden boats than any other person in Hong Kong.

The boat was built using traditional techniques and made exclusively from wood, using bamboo for waterproofing with no nails used at all in the structure.

For those unaware of the history, the Aqua Luna and Aqua Luna II (in Chinese) are named after Hong Kong pirate Cheung Po Tsai, who sailed Hong Kong waters over 100 years ago. It is rumoured that he used the caves of Cheung Chau to store his pirate treasure. The Aqua Luna I is Cheung Po Tsai and Aqua Luna II is Dai Cheung Po (big brother of Cheung Po) – reflecting its greater size.

With this second vessel, the Aqua Luna fleet offers the same 45 minute evening harbour cruises – where guests can relax on lounge beds, sipping cocktails, day cruises, with a hop-on/hop-off Harbour Discovery Tour and from 1st May, longer daytime cruises to Stanley and now, Cheung Chau island to see the famed caves where Cheung Po Tsai is said to have buried his treasure and also Lamma Island for its beautiful nature trail. There will also be a series of Dim Sum Cruises for guests to enjoy signature dishes, prepared by Dim Sum Library.

To celebrate the launch of Aqua Luna II, complimentary rides will be offered to all Hong Kong ID Card holders on May 13th and 14th (from 12 noon – 5.30pm). In addition, from now until May 31st, all the restaurants in Aqua Restaurant Group will be randomly serving dishes and cocktails in Ming Dynasty plates and cups. Anyone lucky enough to be served the Ming Dynasty ceramic will get complimentary tickets for the new Aqua Luna II.

For Aqua Luna reservations call +852 2116 8821 – for price lists and sailing options see: www.aqualuna.com.hk

3 Stunning Hidden-Gems in Southeast Asia You Must Go To For The Weekend

Every so often, I write about places to go and beautiful hotels to chill in. Some of these I wish I could go but for want of time (the daughter’s doing her IB this year, so it’s full out work till November!). So I only get to live vicariously through gorgeous images of gorgeous hotels and resorts. Here are a couple of absolutely stunning hidden gems to spend a weekend in.

As for me, for now, I can only write and sigh wistfully…. Here goes.

Round up the family and check into Villa Belong Dua in the Bali countryside. This rustic, tropical retreat done in traditional Balinese style is family friendly, with a 20m pool in a lush, mature garden, two bedrooms and airy pavilions set around a compound. Take a swim, doze off in the bale, sip cocktails with a good book, and tuck into great homemade meals by the resident chef. With the villa set in the village of Seseh, you can take leisurely strolls to the beach, visit the Tanah Lot temple at sunrise, cycle through padi fields (the villa has bikes), and Seminyak is less than 30 mins’ drive away. A full staff including three butlers, manager, security guards at night, are on hand to see to everything you need. Prices are decent: from US$290 to US$475 per night for the entire villa. Wifi and all the techno mod-cons are in place.
More details at http://www.villabelongdua.com

 

Villa Samadhi, just newly opened in Singapore‘s lush, historical Labrador Park is a stunning colonial military garrison now turned into a beautiful 20-room boutique hotel. Long ago, high level British military personnel lived here. Now, it’s a place to unwind, and explore the surrounding nature reserve park with the kids with its hidden tunnels built over a century ago, and machine gun posts – relics from the colonial era — or walk the beach and look (don’t touch!) at the coral. Have afternoon tea or evening cocktails in the Library, then head to Tamarind Hill, the hotel’s Thai restaurant for more libations and great food. For locals, this makes a great staycation, and for out-of-towners, this is a unique destination hotel that gives you a different sense of Singapore, with the MRT just a five-minute walk away. Bookings for stays until 30 April get 20% off best available rates, daily brekkie and evening cocktails, plus cognac, Asian snacks and chocolate at turndown. Nice.
http://www.villasamadhi.com.sg

 

There’s more historical luxury and nostalgia to soak up at The Majestic Hotel in UNESCO heritage town Malacca with its rich Portuguese, Dutch, Peranakan, Kristang culture. The hotel itself, once dilapidated, has been gloriously refurbished by eponymous YTL Group. (The house itself was once the mansion of a rich merchant, who died just two years after he moved in.) The original Victorian tiles and teakwood finishings have been retained and the rest of the hotel stunningly restored, soaked in nostalgic luxury. Think elegant silks, clawfoot baths and four poster beds. It’s main restaurant is Melba at the Mansion, helmed by chef Melba Nunis who serves up rare heritage Kristang cuisine; there’s also The Bar at the Mansion with whiskies and cocktails served in a colonial plantation setting. This is the place to relax, slow down and soak in the heritage. We like.
http://www.majesticmalacca.com

Acqua e Farina – A laid back restaurant that checks every box

There are those days when you just want a night out with the family, with good food, decent prices and where you don’t have to dress up. Plus a little something extra to perk up the experience, rather than the usual ‘same-old, same-old’. For me, the latest restaurant that checks all these boxes is Acqua e Farina (meaning ‘water and flour’), a cosy restaurant in Rail Mall, Upper Bukit Timah. For a meal there, I am happy to drive all the way from home in Siglap in the East.

When I first heard that this new Italian restaurant specialised in pizza and pasta, I was struck bored as nails. But since my first visit there, I have been back with family in tow. First, the food there is really good. The pizzas in particular are worth the drive. In the rain. With a sore throat.

Chef Antonio Manetto, one of the owners, does the pizzas. Hailing from Naples where the best pizzas in Italy are from, he holds up the reputation well. (The other owner is chef Roberto Galbiati who comes from Milan, and specialises in desserts and the heartier cuisines of northern Italy. Which means you get the best of both ‘ends’ of Italian food here.) Apart from using a particular kind of flour flown in from Italy, he lets the dough rest for an extended period of time, which results in a wonderfully light yet robust pizza base, chewy without being heavy. From this, he serves up a good range of red and white pizzas including signatures such as pizza Acqua E Farina ($25) topped with spicy salami, tomatoes, mozzarella, ricotta and sautéed spinach, and Pizza Bufala ($25) featuring  two kinds of mozzarella.

What I liked particularly was the restaurant’s unique boat pizzas which seem like a cross between a calzone and a Turkish pide. The Barca Bufala ($26), or Sicilian boat, was great, bursting with juicy tomatoes, melted buffalo mozzarella and draped with generous servings of Parma ham. The prawn spaghetti with garlic, olive oil and chilli was enjoyable too, rich and aromatic, with pasta made from scratch, and cooked till nicely al dente, with a bouncy, lively consistency.

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Two other dishes really impressed: a starter of buffalo mozzarella, tomatoes and basil wrapped in Parma ham ($23), served with mixed greens and flat bread and the other, sautéed octopus with potatoes, olives and capers ($28). These are must-have’s and all you need for a light indulgent lunch, washed down with a glass of white wine.

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To end, the dessert platter ($14) offers tasting portions of creme brulee, molten chocolate cake, panna cotta and tiramisu (non-alcoholic).

There are a few more things worth mentioning about Acqua e Farina. Its very wallet-friendly wine list, for one. Bottles are generally priced at the sweet spot: the house red, Montepuciano d’Abruzzo, Farina, for instance, is only $50 per bottle — an easy-drinking red that’s delectably rounded, smooth and low on tannins.

There’s free parking at Rail Mall, and if you’re lucky, you can even park by the lane in front of the restaurant entrance. With hardly any stairs to take, it’s relatively easy to bring wheelchair-bound guests or elderly family members who may have mobility issues.

Finally if you are planning a party but don’t want to cook, Acqua e Farina offers a ‘Party Helper’ service where you can order dishes in party portions and have them delivered to your home. Choose from a full menu featuring dishes like Salmon Fillet baked with Butter and Dill ($92, for 8 people), Roast Beef Rib Eye served with Vegetables and Rosemary Sauce ($160, 2kg) and Spaghetti tossed with Prawns, Garlic, Herbs, Fresh Tomatoes and Olive Oil ($48, serves 4 people). We notice the prices are very decent too.

The Rail Mall – 400 Upper Bukit Timah Road
Tel: +65 6462 0926