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March 12, 2009
I’ve come to Hanoi for some adventurous eating. It's a city of great contrast where you can have an excellent dinner of noodles while perched on a tiny red plastic chair on a sidewalk in a kind of gloomy half light, or dine in elegance at any number of grand restaurants.
I chose Club Opera, a short walk from Hanoi’s shimmering Hoan Kiem Lake. The waitresses wear gold and black áo dài (a flowing silk tunic dress with silk pants), their long black hair pulled back with gold ribbons. As in all restaurants in Vietnam, I am given a hot towel when I am seated. Before I can order, I'm served a platter of beautifully pickled vegetables: cucumbers, cabbage, onions and others that I can't identify.
My second teaser arrives, and I have no idea what it is. The tiny dish in front of me apparently contains an open-face turnover. My waitress closes it with chopsticks and then motions that I should scoop it with my spoon. It is gelatinous and filled with tiny shrimp the size of rice, and for contrast something crunchy (what? I don't know). It slithers down like a raw oyster.
I start with a Hanoi specialty, shrimp cakes. They arrive on a carefully arranged bed of shredded lettuce and herbs. The cakes are made of potato and taro and formed into pinwheels with a shrimp in the center and deep fried. Each spoke of the pinwheel is a potato stick.
I combine the salad with the cakes, dunk the combination in dipping sauce and float in culinary heaven.
The pleasure continues with garlic encrusted sole accompanied by what is called sautéed morning glories. I have no idea what they are! The fish has just the right amount crispy texture to seal the soft, moist flesh. The morning glories taste both sweet and sharp.
I am deeply content until I see what our neighbors have ordered: crispy looking tubes of something stuck elegantly into holes inside a flaming pineapple. What could they possibly be, I wonder.
Would you be willing to find out?
Next to the spice dealers, there are sweet shops: Turkish delight, baklava, and traditional ice cream, stretched and rolled like fudge but thicker.