Monday, February 16, 2009

Hue (Part 2)

My second day in Hue started off poorly, mostly because of the heavy rain that woke me up before I was ready and continued throughout the morning. But despite the rain I was determined to have Hue's most famous culinary product, bun bo Hue, and I didn't care how wet I became getting there. This was the perfect attitude to have, it turned out, because my rain gear didn't protect me at all. I arrived at the restaurant sopping wet, and then I unwittingly chose the only seat located beneath a steady drip of rusty water from the corrugated metal rooftop.

Bun bo Hue restaurant on Ly Thuong Kiet Street. Very local, very delicious. But going there in the pouring rain probably isn't the best idea.

It's not easy eating spicy soup with a pig's foot sticking out of it, with all the other customers staring at you and dirty water plopping on your head every five seconds. What the situation required was focus, but I really wasn't up to the challenge. I realized later that it would have been a difficult enough challenge already without the other elements to contend with.

I love places like this: it was almost literally a hole in the wall (it had holes in the roof, like I said, and there were gaps underfoot as well), whose sole purpose for fifteen or twenty years has been to make and serve a single dish, refining it over time, and getting closer and closer to perfection. And not just any food, but a hearty, spicy soup cooked in a vat over a wood fire. Yes, the place was dirty, but there was also something beautiful about it. The restaurant had a wabi-sabi aesthetic to it, and it was in overdrive here.

Bowls of rice vermicelli awaiting spicy soup

The soup vats here were spicy just to look at. As I got closer, steam rose off the surface and enveloped my head, and the piquancy of red chilies shot up my nostrils. I could have stood there all day just breathing it in.

You want spicy? They've got spicy. Here's a vat of Hue's favorite muy caliente, or shall I say cai qua, morning soup.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and call the bowl of bun bo Hue that I was served the most perfect one I've ever seen. Granted, I'm not a huge bun bo Hue fan, but even if you don't like this kind of dish, how can you look at the photo below and not respect it?

If there was such a thing as a perfect bowl of bun bo Hue...

I dumped virtually the entire plate of bean sprouts and herbs that I was given into my bowl, and I also ate my fair share of fried bread that came with it.

It was insanely spicy, and I'll admit I'm a little weak when it comes to hot foods. But, as always, it was a fascinating meal to me, and I suffered slowly through the pain on my tongue, savoring the generous slices of well cooked meat, the crunchy tendon, the huge ball of sausage, the vermicelli noodles (stained red from the red chilies in the broth), the chopped scallions, and even the nearly black blood cakes, which had a buttery consistency in my mouth but were more or less without flavor. It didn't help that I came to breakfast with a sore throat -- a bad idea when eating spicy fare. I was coughing throughout my meal, and in the end couldn't finish the whole bowl. Even so, I was glad I came here and ate what I did. The heavy rain, which was annoying at first, ended up enhancing the atmosphere of the restaurant.

For anyone who finds themselves in Hue, this bun bo Hue restaurant is located at 11B Ly Thuong Kiet Street.

Later that morning I went wandering around my neighborhood. I saw someone eating bread at an open-fronted restaurant, and so I walked inside, sat down, and ordered a soft, fresh baguette with jam and butter and an iced coffee -- all to soothe my tongue, which was still on fire.

After breakfast, I headed to a small cafe where I sat sheltered from the rain and had a baguette and some local coffee

When it came time for lunch, I was ready for my second imperial cuisine restaurant (well, the third, actually, if you count the one that wouldn't let me eat there). I headed toward the Citadel, got lost in a beautiful little neighborhood full of trees and old houses set back from the road, then found the place I came for: Y Thao Garden Restaurant. This restaurant, although somewhat far away from the majority of hotels, is definitely worth visiting, especially if you still have energy after a day of exploring some of the nearby tourist sites.

Main dining area of Y Thao Garden Restaurant

I ordered off the set menu, which is the only choice you have, a meal of 9 mini-courses that cost less than US$10. The first course was something I came across in all three imperial cuisine restaurants I went to. It was pretty, I guess, but I felt like I was eating something gimmicky. Was this something the emperor actually ate two centuries ago? So the restaurants all claim.

In any case, the peacock in the photo below was artfully carved out of carrots, which were placed around a pineapple lying on a porcelain plate. (It's nose, I should add, was made from a small bird's-eye chili.) One dozen spring rolls stuck up out of the peacock's back, and a small bowl of fish sauce was provided for dipping them in. They were light, filled with pork, shrimp, and black mushrooms, but their true worth lay in the part they played in the peacock's presentation, not in their taste.

1st course: springs rolls on decorative pineapple-and-carved-vegetable peacock

The second course was a small bowl of vegetable soup with a single cilantro leaf floating on top. This dish, too, was pleasantly light, and the aroma of fresh boiled potatoes and carrots matched its clean taste.

2nd course: vegetable soup

After my second course, I was quickly given a third: steamed king prawns slung over the rim of a tall glass and joined by a tomato as well as fancily cut scallions and red chilies. While the veggies are included for show, the prawns are by all means fair game. I peeled their shells, exposed their white flesh like stuffing, and dipped them in a small bowl of lime juice mixed with pepper. They were big enough to be a mouthful, and their mildly briny taste underlined the dipping sauce I used. They were beautiful...and I was starting to get full already.

3rd course: steamed shrimp

The fourth course was set down, and I recognized it right away -- banh xeo, otherwise known as a "sizzling crepe." Again, it was nothing I hadn't seen before, even in terms of its presentation. But I'm not complaining, for it was quite tasty. The inside filling consisted of bean sprouts, pork, and shrimp, and the rice flour "banh" was crispy, though a little more oily than I'd expected.

4th course: Hue speciality pancake (banh xeo)

Specialty pancake opened up

Course number five sounded very interesting to me, and when it was set down before me I couldn't tell exactly what I was looking at. What dominated the plate was fig, though it looked like pork and even had a firmness to it that made me stop and wonder. But the taste was mild and decidedly not pork, or meat of any kind. It was sprinkled with peanuts and sesame seeds and spread upon a bed of chopped basil. One was meant to spoon the salad onto the rice crackers that accompanied the dish, and this lent a salty crunch to the salad that I quite liked.

5th course: mixed fig salad, eaten on shrimp crackers

The sixth course soon arrived, by which time I had to take stock of my body and listen for any signals telling me not to go on. There might have been a whimper somewhere, but it wasn't loud enough to take seriously. So I dug in. This course consisted of grilled beef with slivered carrots and green papaya in the center. It was garlicky, and a bit spicy, but the primary taste was of sweet grilled beef, similar to what you'd find in a bowl of bun thit nuong.

6th course: grilled beef with sliced carrot and papaya in the center

I was worried about the seventh course until I saw how tiny it was. My waitress came out with a teacup-sized bowl of steamed rice mixed with vegetables (the same as what was used in the soup) and lotus seeds. This was to cleanse the palate after the rich dish I'd just finished, and thankfully it was quite light. The lotus seeds surprised me with their bitterness, and while I was initially interested in their flavor I didn't finish them.

7th course: steamed rice mixed with lotus seeds and vegetables

The meal ended with a dessert of two prettily peeled mandarin oranges, as well as what I didn't understand at first was actually food.

Mandarin orange for dessert

I knew that the flowers in the photo below weren't real, but I had no idea that I was meant to eat them. I had a similar experience at a Japanese restaurant in Saigon once where I attempted to eat a vegetable that was, to my chagrin, a giant painted marble...or something. And I didn't want to commit the same faux pas in this nice restaurant, and at the same time risk breaking my teeth. The second dessert was, in fact, gelatin and green bean cake colored and shaped to look like flowers. It was pretty amazing, and it tasted good, too, especially with a hot cup of jasmine tea.

Second dessert of flowers made from green bean cake and gelatin

Y Thao Garden is a very classy place, but it's also affordable. One thing that I appreciated about the restaurant was their collection of antique Chinese and Vietnamese porcelain, which I was told had once belonged to the royal family. The owners of the restaurant, who were almost eagerly accessible, spoke excellent English and were incredibly well-versed on both the history and the arts of old Hue. If you make it here, give yourself fifteen minutes to talk to these wonderful people.

Restaurant collection of Chinese ceramics commissioned by the Nguyen Dynasty in the early- to mid-1800s

You'd also do well to give yourself fifteen minutes to wander around the premises. The two wings of the main house (where the primary dining area is) are newly constructed with building materials collected from old, abandoned temples outside of Hue. They're brilliantly utilized and gorgeous.

Newest wing of Y Thao Garden, built from the wood of an old temple in the nha ruong style

Y Thao Garden is located at 3 Thach Han Street, not terribly far from the Citadel. Any taxi driver will know how to get here. The restaurant's telephone number is (54) 352-3018, and their email is

As if I hadn't eaten enough at lunch, I went for ANOTHER "imperial cuisine" meal, this time with the sister and niece of my former Vietnamese-American landlord in Saigon. The owner of the restaurant was a distant relative of theirs whom they hadn't seen in almost ten years. Hoping I wouldn't get in the way of their reunion, I tagged along.

Front of Tinh Gia Vien Restaurant

The artistry of our first course impressed me, as would most of the following courses, and I felt a little guilty digging into the flowing tail of the "phoenix" that spread elegantly across our long porcelain dish. The tail consisted of pork, with its yellow outer edges made from thin strips of omelet. Though the course was not meant to be substantial, I felt that the taste could have been less bland.

Dance of the phoenix (cha phung hoang mua)

Our second course was an actual lantern made from a pineapple. The light from a flame flickered beneath a number of skewers with fried tofu skin, fried squid, and grilled beef wrapped in grape leaves (bo nuong la nho). This was akin to a sample platter of appetizers, all of which had me wishing for more such lanterns on our table.

Pineapple lantern of assorted appetizers (huong moc dang)

This was followed by a small portion of soup made from egg, crab, thinly sliced vegetables, and pepper. The soup was excellent, though much like I've had elsewhere.

"Surprise soup of Hue" (sup ngac nhien cua Hue)

After that we were served something that seems to be a staple at Imperial Cuisine restaurants: fried spring rolls presented on a pineapple that's been carved into the shape of a peacock. Despite having this sort of thing twice before, I enjoyed it now for a third time, and thought that the artistry of this particular dish was most impressive here. Look at the carrot flowers in the "tail" and the bird's eye chilies in the face, not to mention the head and collar of the peacock. That is glorious food right there.

Vietnamese spring rolls in the form of a peacock (nem ran hinh con cong)

The next dish up was a sweet and sour papaya salad, with lots of carrot woven in both as garnishing and comestible. This dish, too, was unique to Tinh Gian Vien, and its tanginess was a welcome addition at this point, as it cleansed the palate a bit.

Sweet and sour papaya in the form of a dragon (goi du du hinh rong bay)

I love fried calamari, which is a gloriously simple dish. And what we were served for our sixth course didn't disappoint. Yet it wasn't really any different from fried cuttlefish that I've had elsewhere, and the garnishing, which tends to be half the artistry of these dishes, was minimal -- a little disappointing for a cuisine that prides itself on being the product of three hundred years of refinement.

Fried cuttlefish (muc chien don)

Our final course was nicely done and quite tasty. The tortoise was apparent in the presentation, and the fried rice was good after a sprinkling of soy sauce. It was nice finding this dish on the menu, as it was different from other courses I was served at Phuoc Thanh and Y Thao Garden.

Cantonese rice in the form of a tortoise (com hinh kim quy)

The highlight of the meal was both the company at my table and also our interaction with the restaurant's owner, Madame Ha. Despite her sixty-odd years, she ranks up there as one of the liveliest persons I've ever met in Vietnam, and no one compares with her in terms of the passion she brings to whatever she happens to be doing. Not only is she one of Vietnam's most famous chefs and restaurateurs (she has served elaborate Hue-style meals to various heads of state, and has long been a well known TV personality), but she is also one of Hue's most respected photographers, painters, and sculptors. She has also worked a
s a nurse for many years, and speaks several languages. I found her extremely generous and a fascinating person to be around. If you find yourself in Hue, try to make a point to stop at her restaurant and say hello. She's very accessible, as she likes to go from table to table and speak with her customers.

Tinh Gia Vien Restaurant is located at 20 Le Thanh Ton Street and is open from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. The phone number here is (054) 522-243.

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