I recently spent two weeks travelling around Vietnam, falling in love with the country and its cuisine. To my mind at least, it is one of the best in the world – full of lively, fresh, healthy, intelligently paired ingredients, clean but nonetheless intense flavours and riotous colours. From the translucent, tightly bound, fresh spring rolls stuffed with herbs, crunchy vegetables, soft noodles and slivers of marinated meat and prawns to the bowls of fragrant pho that we slurped for breakfast and the plates bearing generous bunches of coriander, Thai basil and mint that arrived as an accompaniment or garnish to almost every meal – I adored it all.
On the top of my to-do list when I returned to the UAE, then, was to seek out an authentic, reasonably priced (ie not located in a hotel) Vietnamese restaurant where I could satisfy my craving for pho bo and hopefully put paid to those dastardly post-holiday blues. Hanoi, a restaurant in Jumeirah Lake Towers, was soon brought to my attention – and a few days later, my friend and I set off with high hopes. The small, clean, simply decorated cafe on the ground floor of Goldcrest Executive Towers looks rather cute with its bright orange and green chairs, oversized fake plants and large prints depicting scenes from the Vietnamese countryside. The large menu is divided into sections: noodle soups, salads, bun dishes, light bites and main courses, so we ordered an array of dishes to share and sat back in anticipation.
First impressions were good: a small plate bearing bunches of mint and coriander was placed in the middle of the table, which already boasted a selection of condiments, fish and chilli sauce included. The two fresh spring rolls that arrived first were generously filled with shredded carrot and cucumber, a sliver of omelette, a piece of sliced shrimp and sprigs of mint. They were crunchy and chewy in all the right places, although a little bland. Next up was banh xeo, perhaps our favourite dish of the night – the large, stuffed crêpe was thin, crisp and well-seasoned and the chicken in the middle was surprisingly -tender.
A sizeable and crunchy Vietnamese salad was pleasant, if not exactly memorable – a tangle of thinly sliced carrots, shredded cabbage, cucumbers, mint leaves, a scattering of peanuts and enough red chilli to make lips tingle, all dressed with a slightly sweet, vaguely vinegary, lime dipping sauce.
The salad was quickly followed by the arrival of a vast bowl of Hanoi’s special pho (a combination of sliced steak, beef balls and brisket). It was, I’m sad to say, disappointing. The noodles were mushy and completely overcooked, the brisket was missing from the bowl entirely, and the broth – the backbone of pho – lacked that meaty depth of flavour and instead tasted overwhelmingly of Chinese five spice, with extra ground cinnamon thrown in for good measure.
Strangely, there wasn’t a hint of caramel in our caramelised ginger chicken dish. The meat had clearly been braised rather than fried and the presentation was sloppy enough to warrant mention. Looks aside, we had mixed feelings about this one – the pieces of sweet, slow-cooked ginger in the sauce added a tangy kick which worked well with the citrus, aromatic kaffir lime, but the thin gravy had an unpleasant oily finish.
Service wasn’t exactly great: the overall impression that I took away was that the two waitresses were indifferent to our presence. Our initial order was only taken after we’d deliberately sought someone out and at the end of the meal, plates of food remained on the table as we paid the bill and left.
I wanted to love Hanoi, I really did. I had hoped it would be a little gem that I could rave about and return to time and time again. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case. A couple of the dishes were decent and this is one of the only cheap Vietnamese restaurants in Dubai, but that’s not a good enough reason to heap praise upon it. The food was mediocre at best and certainly doesn’t do the cuisine justice. The quest continues.
A meal for two at Hanoi cost Dh190, including service charge. For reservations, call 04 431 3099. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and all reviews are conducted incognito.