When I attended Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., there was a popular pho joint across the river from campus that provided a perfect hangover cure after a boozy night before. That was my first encounter with Vietnamese food, but beyond the pho dishes, my experience with the country’s cuisine has not expanded much. Unlike other Southeast Asian countries like Thailand that uses a ton of spices for maximum effect in flavor, Vietnam’s food didn’t come across as equally appealing. With the opening of a number of new Vietnamese restaurants in the city, I figured now is a good time to explore what Vietnam can offer to the culinary journey for my wife Jun and myself. Hanoi House has received quite a bit of buzz since its opening early this year, so we decided to go check out on a beautiful Sunday evening after some daytime drinking elsewhere in Manhattan. Overall, there were some dishes that we liked but the dining experience left somewhat short of our expectations.
When Jun and I stepped into the dining area, we saw of good mix of Asian (probably Vietnamese and Chinese) and Caucasian crowd. When it comes to Asian food, we always find authenticity very important and often frown at modern twists that go awry and end up appealing to the American diners who cherish rich flavor with a lot of sweet, salty or sour taste above all else. Jun and I are both all for bold flavor, but once we had the coconut braised octopus with charred onions and quail eggs, we saw which direction the kitchen decided to head. The flavor of the octopus was too much of sweet and sour, and the octopus itself didn’t feel cooked thoroughly to give that optimal level of texture. I thought the spicy frog legs with Cajun rice batter, pickled peppers and peanuts were a lot better with the spicy flavor of peppers added to the frog legs that tasted like chicken, but Jun again had an issue with freshness of the meat, pointing out how the spicy flavor was masking what she believed to be a meat of subpar quality. Since we are at a Vietnamese restaurant, we had to get the pho at Hanoi House, which is accompanied by filet mignon and brisket. We both really liked the pho dish where the ingredients worked together quite well for a nice antidote to our mild buzzy state from daytime drinking. At the same time, though, we were wondering again if the kitchen was catering too much to the American audience as the broth seemed to be a tad richer than what we typically expected from pho dishes. For the other main dish, we went with bun cha, a somewhat confusing assortment of grilled lemongrass pork, pork meatballs, pickled green papaya and crab spring rolls you can put on top of rice vermicelli noodles. I thought the addition of smoky sweet broth added quite something to this dish, but again we both wondered if the broth was an attempt by the kitchen to play it safe instead of paying homage to the essence of Vietnamese cuisine.
The restaurant doesn’t accept reservations for parties smaller than 6, so if you’re inclined to check out the food here, the best bet is to show up early. The vibe of the dining space is that of a typical casual Asian fusion-style restaurant in East Village. There is a concise list of wine and beer to complement your meal. I really wish our dining experience at Hanoi House were better. The main issue of our dinner mainly came down to the direction that the kitchen was taking, which I guess many other American diners would gladly accept. On the other hand, the quality of ingredients seems something that the kitchen needs to keep in mind going forward.
- Creativity: 8.0/10
- Execution: 7.5/10
- Ingredients: 6.5/10
- Flavor: 7.0/10
- Texture: 7.5/10
- Value: 7.5/10
Address: 119 St. Mark’s Place, New York, NY 10009
Telephone: (212) 995-5010