Truc Bach, where I live, conspicuously lacks a good Japanese restaurant. Tsukiji Restaurant had been a good option ever since I moved here, but months of mismanagement, which resulted in bankruptcy and its recent closure, made Truc Bach seem utterly barren of Japanese restaurants. But then my good friends at Hanoilife told me about Chikuan, a restaurant known as much for its gyotaku art as for its excellent nihon ryouri. Unknown to me, it was also located in Truc Bach.
It’s easy to overlook Chikuan – on a small street overshadowed by much larger, flashier restaurants nearby, and without a signboard in English or Vietnamese, I had a bit of trouble just finding it. But once I walked through the door – a wooden door that’s usually closed, which makes the entire restaurant also look closed – I discovered a huge interior that felt homey and was full of wonderful cooking smells.
We were guided to the second floor, where our friends from Hanoilife were waiting. My friend M– (whose birthday was last week, and on which day he broke his arm!) pointed me to a gyotaku painting outside our small private room and said that it, like all the others on the restaurant’s walls, was done by the restaurant’s owner. Basically, he caught the fish, painted it with colored ink, then pressed it against rice paper and completed the rest of the painting, as it’s seen framed below.
In fact, I came across five different gyotaku paintings in the restaurant, though I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more.
The fifth gyotaku painting is of a fish called iwana in Japanese. Iwana is a kind of char, and it featured prominently in our meal later, though not because of anything we ordered…
M– also brought a bottle of Taiga no Itteki shochu, a special type of shochu made in Miyazaki province in Kyushu, which a friend of his had brought back for him from Japan. I’m glad M– thought to bring it with him, and I'm also grateful that he was willing to share it – it really topped off what turned out to be a great (if rather bizarre) meal.
The first dish we ordered was hiyayakko, an enormous slab of cold tofu served with chopped green onions, fried rice, and soy sauce. For something as plain-seeming as tofu, this had amazing flavor, and was a pleasantly light beginning of our feast.
We followed this with kohada sashimi, served on a beautiful Ryukyu-style glass plate (manufactured in Gia Lam and surely the subject of a future post here). I’m a big fan of kohada, or gizzard shad in English, and this was as excellent as I’ve found it anywhere. The presentation, too, was beautiful.
This was followed by several tempura dishes, the first of which was made from sliced lotus. All of our tempura dishes were served with a dollop of green tea powder mixed with salt, which is used for dipping.
The next dish was megochi no tempura. Megochi is Japanese for flathead, and its meat is white and slightly sweet. This, too, was excellent, and something I’ll want to order again the next time I come to Chikuan.
I was really surprised by our third and final tempura order, pieces shaped like tied sacks and filled with cream cheese. There's no way to pretend that this is healthy, but it certainly tasted good.
I’m not sure if the next order is seasonal or not, and while it’s a very common thing to eat in Japan, this was the first time I can remember having it: roasted ginko nuts, or ginnan in Japanese.
These were kind of fun to de-shell and peel, and dipped in sea salt they were tasty and chewy.
The four of us were already on our seventh dish of the night – a grilled fish, the name of which I forget.
It was at this point that the meal started to test our courage. M–, I think, can eat anything, and I’m usually up for any food challenge, though the other two people in our party began now to bow out. I don’t blame them, really, though my initial dislike for the dish in the photo below – ika no kimo ni (tofu and squid marinated in a squid-liver-based sauce) – matured into something like respect (I ate two bowls of it). It was good, I discovered, as long as I went easy on the sauce.
The next thing we ordered was gyutan, or cow tongue, which was thinly sliced and grilled with pepper and salt. I’ve had gyutan before, mostly in Hawaii, but this was by far the best I’ve ever had. As expected, it was very tender, and the salt and pepper gave it a sort of crisp flavor that went great with the last gulp of beer I had left in my glass.
Our tenth but nowhere near our final dish was cha soba, buckwheat noodles made with green tea. This is one of my favorite soba dishes, and with a nice dipping sauce I was able to practice my slurping skills, which have apparently deteriorated recently. My shirt ended up half-drenched, but I didn’t care.
We took a short breather, as you might during halftime of a sporting event you’re engaged in. I grabbed the wet towel I'd been given at the start of our meal and wiped myself down. Then I ordered a new wet towel, one free of my own sweat.
One of the perks of a good soba meal is being able to drink afterward the water used to boil the soba noodles (sobayu). It’s healthy and refreshing, and mixed with M–’s shochu, as we mixed the two tonight, it’s extra special.
This is where the meal separated the men from the boys. Or rather, the men from the women, who at this point just sat and watched me and M– with gravely concerned expressions on their faces. M–’s friend had not only brought back shochu from Japan, but also, at M–’s request, two kinds of chinmi (delicacies) from Akita province. The first was uruka, which is basically the salted guts of a fish or squid. M– brought a small bottle of iwana uruka (see the fifth gyotaku painting above), and with chopsticks he proceeded to scoop some out and show just how disgusting its texture was. It hung on each side of his chopsticks like your basic sludge, and wasn’t smooth but somehow had a pocked surface. It was pretty gross. The kind of thing you might find yourself being forced to eat in a nightmare, lets say.
He dumped some on my plate, where it sat in a congealed lump and seemed to breathe in a good part of the oxygen in the room. Before we were all asphyxiated, then, I scooped up almost the entire blob in one go and choked it down. Only, once it was in my mouth, there was no need to choke it down at all. It was good! It was salty, which was probably what made it edible, but it wasn’t bad at all.
I was so pleasantly surprised that I jumped into my next food challenge as if it were nothing.
The next thing M– served me requires some explanation. It’s called hata hata no shirakodzuke, which roughly translates to “the eggs and testicles of a sandfish, marinated in sandfish sperm, chilies, sake, and salt.”
My Hanoilife friends didn’t give me this full explanation right away, but only after I’d taken the first bite (admittedly a small one). But at that point I’d gone so far with it that I figured I might as well go farther, so for good measure I ate about a third of the glob M– put on my plate.
It tasted much as the iwana uruka did – it was basically just salty, and slimy enough that it was smooth going down.
As if we needed chasers for the fish guts, sperm, eggs, and testicles, we ordered sticks of grilled fish patties (tsukune), which with lemon were fantastic – so thick and meaty. As chasers, we couldn’t have done better than this.
Our final dish of the night ended up being torikawa yakitori, or chicken skin grilled on sticks. When hot, these were a tasty end to the night, but they cooled soon and somehow became more oily.
For four people, our meal ended up costing $56, which is quite reasonable for the amount of food we ordered. I highly recommend this place, though at the same time I’m a bit wary about letting others in on this unobtrusive gem of a restaurant in Truc Bach…
Chikuan is located at 108 Cua Bac Street in Hanoi. Tel: (04) 6294-1098. Email: email@example.com. It’s open Monday through Saturday from 11:30 – 14:00 and from 17:30 – 23:00. On Sunday the hours are the same, but it closes at 22:00.