Review: Hanoi Hanoi is a Vietnamese so good they named it twice

Big bright and friendly and that’s just the flavours in this super restaurant

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Hanoi Hanoi

  • 101-102 Capel St, Dublin 1
  • (01) 878 8798
  • Thai/South-East Asian

A shoe full of ice cold puddle water has been my gift from the gods on the journey home tonight. So it’s good to have a bellyful of fire beef from a Vietnamese restaurant to balance things out.

Hanoi Hanoi is a bright spot up the drearier end of Capel Street. A sign in the window tells us it’s a family-run restaurant and uses the word “authentic” to describe what they serve.

It’s my second visit here. The first was before Christmas, with a voice-shredding dose of laryngitis and a friend who not only knows her Vietnamese food but can also order it in Vietnamese. We were impressed and amazed to see the place so empty.

Unlike many of the city’s ethnic eateries, Hanoi Hanoi is a big barn of a place. The old building has the proportions of a superbar. There are original exposed brick arches and a fireplace nook that now houses a distinctly un-Irish looking cooking pot. There are crystal tumblers on the tables, chopsticks, cutlery and purple paper napkins. A chandelier glitters in the middle of the decorative ceiling plaster, its outlines marshmallowed with years of paint.

“Something’s on fire over there,” one of the three of us says. I’m busy reading the menu so assume he’s looking at the kitchen. But that’s behind closed doors. The burning thing is a bowl where another diner is fishing her dinner out from between the flames.

If ever there was a night to order a bowl of fire, then tonight is it. But first there’s a sharing platter of starters: crisply deep fried crab spring rolls with a mild chilli dipping sauce. The punch is in the plum sauce, which leaves a vapour trail of heat in its wake. There’s a fried rice and honey swirl with a dark nugget of pork meat in its centre. Tooth-stickingly sweet and meaty, it has a strangely familiar flavour that the firespotter nails as “pure Funderland doughnut.” There are tasty chewy bits of lamb on skewers.

The appropriately named Nom Du Du is papaya and spiced beef salad; it’s one of the reasons I’m back, with more mouths to feed. The papaya is unripe and cut into fine strings like cabbage, so it tastes more vegetable than fruit. There are purple and green shiso leaves that look like nettles and taste like an aniseedy mint.

The beef is in the form of tiny rectangles of shoe-sole chewy spiced, sliced and grilled meat sprinkled over all the greens with a light touch along with a generous blizzard of peanuts. The whole lot costs €5.80 and sits in a smokey sweet sour sauce a tea-like broth that ties it all together.

The Vietnamese for cow is bó, so with those kinds of cultural resonances you can’t not do the beef thing. In our case, it’s a well-done beef pho or pot of scalding rice noodle soup with chilli paste on the side to take the dish from mild to ferocious depending on your mood. My fire beef comes in two bowls. The outer one has burning wax with the flames licking up around the sides of the inner bowl. A sauce is poured over it as it arrives and everything bubbles gently as the flames dance lazily. It’s hot only in temperature. There’s a honey sweetness to the sauce.

The only slight letdown is the rice, which is a touch watery. A generouslysized spiced crunchy fried prawn dish for €6 makes up the third main.

The house speciality dessert is Che Suong Sa Hat Luu, a glass of cold custardy liquid topped with coconut milk with gelatinous lumps of various sizes and textures suspended in it. One for a sweltering day in downtown Hanoi maybe, but no one likes it on a night when gusts of wind keep blowing the door open. “The spirits are not happy with our mocking of dessert,” Jeanne suggests.  The house yoghurt is spot on, a glass of lemony set vanilla milk for €2.

“Authentic” has become a bleached-out food word, overused and drained of its meaning. But Hanoi Hanoi does the authentic Vietnamese thing of making a meal an occasion with cut glass tumblers, a fire show and flavours to wake up a January palate and send you out into the cold smiling.

Dinner for three with a bottle of wine and a beer came to €93.60.