Gia Ngu, Hanoi.

January 2015

Lonely Planet had a few suggestions for big night out in this street-food-dominated city, but none of them was close enough to my hotel or looked interesting enough to take the trouble. Tripadvisor, another restaurant search I use along with Michelin and Zasgat, put this one at the top of the list. Now I know Tripadvisor’s list is contaminated with a bunch of teenage alcoholic knownothings, but I use it as a general guide like I use Robert Parker’s ratings to get me into the ballpark with wine.

It’s in a hotel, and the six or seven idle employees in the lobby rush to escort the idiot tourist downstairs to the restaurant. We confront a burgundy and black colour scheme, with old brick walls. There are several staff, all in their 20s, and the overall impression is a bit plastic but a kind of comforting change from sitting on baby blue stools in a concrete hole-in-the-wall. It’s empty except for three Australia/US/UK twentysomething males in T-shirts and shorts, 6 PM.

A pretty girl approaches and makes pleasant sounds like welcome, hope you have a nice evening, and so on. 60% of what she says is lost in the combination of her pronunciation and my hearing. I opt for belle indifference.

The wine list is abbreviated, emphasizing South American products. I went with an Argentinian malbec. There were three or four tasting menus at about $70 which looked interesting but none of them was completely what I wanted. So I ordered à la carte chicken soup with corn, and then orange duck. The two duck dishes were that and duck with tamarind but my enigmatic server preferred the orange number and it has some historic significance for me so I went for it.

Light crispy deep-fried chips came which were tasty by themselves but very useful sopping up the corn soup. The soup started out tasteless, but once I got some salt and pepper into it and dug into its depths, it wasn’t bad at all. There was a strong mushroom flavour along with the multiple spices on some of the spoon- or chopstick mouthfuls, and it was complex and soul-satisfying enough toward the end that I finished it.

The duck was very nice. It was served with deep-fried sweet potatoes (which ordinarily I can’t stand), slices of orange underneath, and an orange sauce in a tiny bowl. The meat itself was fried in a shredded carbohydrate of some kind, and it was tough but flavorful. The sauce was a sweet orange thing without much pretense and thickened with something like MSG, but it joined up with the orange and meat for a satisfying mouthful. Pulling the elements together (a cut of the meat with a piece of the orange all dipped in the sweetish sauce) there was some flavour and consistency contrast.

915,000 Vietnamese dong sounds wildly exorbitant but it’s really about 50 bucks. You knock off 4 zeros and cut the rest in half.

The weird thing is that the relevant comparison is with the famous street food which costs about 1/10 as much. And I’m afraid if it’s just what’s in your mouth that counts, the street food is probably at least on a par and maybe for flavour and consistency contrast a wee bit better.

Food 8.3, service 8.0, ambience 7.2, value 8.3 (value would be quite a bit higher in any other city).

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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