Friday, June 01, 2007

Hanoian Haute Cuisine

"How did you find out about Le Tonkin?" the waiter asked.

"IS Magazine?" HM proferred tentatively.

We weren't exactly sure how we had heard of the restaurant. Unlike most of the destinations for our food adventures, Le Tonkin didn't come highly recommended by a foodie friend or by one of our favourite foodie bloggers. Instead, it was one of those restaurants that, time and time again, we had come across in the pages of some (usually credit-card endorsed) dining guide. Wouldn't restaurants touted by such guides be much more likely to be temples of the expense account rather than that offering genuinely good eats? We had some vague impression of it as a fancy-schmancy place serving French Vietnamese cuisine, but on a night when we were feeling blah about the usual suspects, we threw caution to the wind and waltzed into the shophouse-turned-restaurant along Mohd Sultan Road.

Conned by a bad case of copywriting hyperbole, I made the decision for us to dine outdoors. The restaurant's website promised a "cool garden environment where bamboos sway and water trickles like a mountain stream". Yes, there were bamboos swaying and the sound of water trickling but neither could really disguise the fact that the outdoor dining area was most unceremoniously wedged between two rows of shophouses. And while there was an occasional breeze perhaps, it could hardly be described as being cool. Ang mo diners may have appreciated the balmy evening (indeed the vast majority of our fellow diners were ang mo...), heat-adverse Singaporeans will certainly prefer the plush airconditioned interior.

Having said all that, we rather enjoyed the evening. For a start, the service was a pleasure. The waitstaff was attentive and yet managed to give us plenty of space, to dither over our choices, for example. At no time did we feel rushed, either to come to a decision about our order or to finish our food. And when it came to my penchant for taking photographs of my food, not only were we not told to stop, our friendly waitperson personally arranged the dishes to best effect. Now that's what I call service*.

amuse bouche

The food was rather good too. We were served these little snacks while waiting for KKN to appear. They were deep fried wantans filled with cheese, accompanied by a strawberry dipping sauce. If that reads rather dubious, I have to say they tasted better than that. The light crispy exteriors were beautifully contrasted by the soft oozy filling. We were tempted to eat KKN's share of the spoils; there must be some consequences for being late...

goi cuon (fresh rice paper rolls)

Le Tonkin Indulgence

Of the two starters, I preferred the more traditional goi cuon, albeit a more luxurious duck-stuffed version. The so-called Indulgence - a sampler comprising bite-sized hors d'ouvres such as cha tom (prawn on sugar cane), slivers of foie gras on sushi-like rolls, smoked salmon on rice crackers, and the like - leaned slightly towards a little pretentiousness, a little East-meets-West.

KKN's braised pork knuckle

HM's cha ca la vong (grilled fish hanoi style)

my steamed prawns in coconut milk

The entrees we chose were all more traditionally Hanoian. Our choice for best entree was unanimous - the restaurant's signature dish of cha ca la vong won hands down. The grilled fish was amazingly fragrant, enhanced by ample and appropriate use of Vietnamese herbs, both cooked and fresh. We also enjoyed the braised pork knuckle which was earthy and rich, although only true pork afficionados like us would truly appreciate the dish. As our waitperson delicately put it, "the taste of the pork is rather strong". The least impressive dish was the steamed prawns. It was far too bland and we kept expecting nightshade instead of peas!

Vietnamese drip coffee

vanilla souffle with mango sauce

kem chay dua (coconut creme brulee)

warm chocolate cake

But the revelation of the night had to be the restaurant's signature dessert, kem chay dua. Served in a coconut shell with Vietnamese ginger candy, a tumbler of coconut juice and a shot of lotus tea on the side, the dish was a delicate balance of tastes and contrast of textures - sweet coconut with zingy ginger, soft custard with crunchy candy.

All in all, it was a pleasurable evening. The jury's still out on whether it was worth $70 per head (our bill came up to $215 for three). We agreed that it was a good place for a special occasion, and certainly for coffee and dessert.

*I thumb my nose at a certain restaurant in the Dempsey Road area, that I would have dearly loved to count as one of my favourites, if not for the way the staff made us feel the one and only night we were there for dinner. They rushed us so that our table could be cleared and freed for a second sitting. Sure, we were forewarned that that was going to be the case, that we had the table till 8.30 and no later, but was there really a need to whip the dishes off the table even before we were quite done with them? Then we were told that the restaurant's policy was to "strongly discourage the taking of photos in the restaurant, particularly of the decor and the food". I have yet to experience this elsewhere, and in far fancier and pricier restaurants too. Let's just say our initial enthusiasm ebbed away. Of course, much as I would like to rant and rave, I doubt if the management of this restaurant would even care. It is hugely popular and I am but one customer...



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