The promising Vietnamese restaurant Hoi An is, at times, not quite on song.
Hoi An: imperfect harmony
Taste is a funny thing. I recall reading somewhere that people either love or hate coriander according to their genetic make-up. Either they appreciate the pungent aroma and gentle citrussy, peppery flavour of the herb, or they are repulsed by its unpleasant soapiness. And apparently, it's all down to their DNA. This was brought to mind in Hoi An, not because my dining partner and I disagree about coriander (we're both big, big fans), but because of the music.
While I was happily deconstructing my starter - a towering layered Indochine breaded crab cake (with coriander), built on a platform of cucumber salad and drizzled with caper-tartare sauce - my partner was one stage of aural torture away from banging her head against the restaurant wall. I'd been oblivious to the traditional Vietnamese music (an intricately overlapping twang-fest of various south-east Asian zithers, lutes and fiddles) while she was grinding her teeth, twisting the tablecloth and slowly shaking her head in abject misery. Perhaps her genes just didn't do traditional Vietnamese music?
Her genes clearly did do Hoi An crispy rolls, however, which provided light relief from her musical ordeal. They were carefully wrapped parcels of crabmeat, shrimp, bean sprouts and shiitake mushrooms with glass noodles on the side, which were awakened by a fresh and tangy citrus-chilli fish sauce. She also appreciated a bite of my crab cake (which looked more like a crab burger), enjoying as much as I did the contrast between the saline sweetness of the Vietnamese blue crab and the tart smoothness of the tartare sauce.
Before that, we'd both agreed the glass noodle salad amuse bouches had been just the thing to prod our palates into action and leave them wanting more. What she didn't want more of was the (as far as she was concerned) ear-shredding tunes, which had more in common with a rusty iron gate banging in a gale than a musical arrangement. Meanwhile, I had high hopes for the rest of the meal. I'd last visited Hoi An during the Gourmet Abu Dhabi food festival, where the chef Kevin Vu had prepared some startlingly good food to suggest his credentials as one of the rising stars of the capital's restaurant scene. So I chose from his list of recommendations on the menu and soon received a huge clay pot of hai san nôi dat, or seafood hot pot. The lid came off to reveal a lightly curried soup obscuring a varied catch of seafood treats, including soft scallops, hunks of delicate, flaky salmon, strapping prawns and the occasional clam.
But there was far too much of something else in there, which the menu had failed to adequately explain. It had been described as mushrooms, yet it was actually three or four obtrusively large and frilly pieces of Chinese snow fungus. If you're unfamiliar with snow fungus (or white fungus, as it's sometimes known) just think of one of those exfoliating mesh scrubs that you'd take into the shower. It looks and probably tastes like that. There was far too much of it, and although genetically there's probably not much difference between, say, shiitake mushrooms and snow fungus, my DNA dictates that I'd prefer the former any day.
Across the table, my companion wasn't having a very good time with her pan-roasted black cod. After so many soft, moist and dewy renditions of the fish in Japanese restaurants, she didn't expect the Vietnamese version to be dry and overcooked. It seemed a regrettable waste of such a large piece of fish, and although the sauteed vegetables and accompanying crab morsels were satisfactory, the fish sauce reduction was far too intense and overpowering. Like the music, she said.
By this time, she was perhaps hoping and praying for a sharp exit, but I (perhaps cruelly, in retrospect) ordered the molten lava chocolate cake, which delayed our exit by a further 20 minutes while it was being prepared. But it was well worth the wait because, unlike so many chocolate fondant cakes in restaurants these days, the outside was deliciously crumbly and the inside was hot, oozy and molten, as promised. My partner's mango soup was a smooth, sweet liquid populated by juliennes of the ripe, fleshy fruit, next to a scoop of coconut ice cream with mint leaves and cracked pepper to temper the sweetness of the dish.
We didn't linger. I'd have been happy to kick back with a strong Vietnamese coffee while the twanging twanged on. But since my genetically predisposed tablemate was ready to hack her ears off and set fire to them, we decided to call it a day. I had rather enjoyed most of the tunes, even if a few of them didn't quite hit the spot. Much like the food here, there was good and bad. But knowing what the chef here is capable of, I'd like to return to Hoi An when he's on song (and my friend has brought her ear plugs).
Shangri-La hotel, Qaryat Al Beri, Between the Bridges, Abu Dhabi, 02 509 8888. Average cost of a meal for two: Dh600-700.