Located behind the Opera House in the same street that houses Binh Minh Jazz Club and the back entrance to Highlands Coffee, the French-influenced Amato is a sliver of a place, barely large enough to swing a cat.
Yet, despite its lack of size and miniscule first-floor and mezzanine-level dining areas, the white-painted bare brick walls make this joint feel spacious. Wooden tables, French era-style floor and wall tiling (check out the colourful downstairs bar) and old French drinks poster prints add to the effect. It’s tasteful and reminiscent of the kind of restaurant you’d find in the more hipster areas of London, Le Marais in Paris or downtown near the Melbourne CBD.
My first impression? I like it. A well thought-out wine list, a creative cocktail selection and a nice, casual ambience: Amato is such a departure from the typical, over-styled, upscale café or bar that you find in Hanoi, that you walk in and feel you are transported to another city. This is not Vietnam.
Tapas and Mains
As befits the restaurant’s size, the dishes served up here are small. Not portion-style small, but tapas-style, in the evening anyway. During the day the place reverts to French-style a la carte or two or three-course set lunches. So, on my second evening visit — the first time I visited with a group of friends — we decided on a mixed smorgasbord of fare.
As the conversation flowed and the food arrived, we found time to discuss each dish.
Sundried tomato manchego croquetas (VND60,000)
Cheese fantastic, nice tang, perfectly melted, lovely strength of taste a testament to the maturity of the cheese. Even though it’s manchego, you could almost be eating a mature brie or camembert in there.
Falafel with mint yoghurt dip (VND60,000)
Slightly off what you would expect of a Middle Eastern restaurant — perhaps lacking a touch of salt — but perfectly crispy on the outside, the right spices, comes with a good, yoghurt-style dipping sauce.
Clams marinieres (VND60,000)
Probably the closest you’ll get to moules marinieres in Vietnam. Really good. Nice and garlicky, with tomatoes and spring onions. Shall we order more?
Duck confit spring rolls (VND80,000)
Comes with some sort of jam or confit. Amazing. We think the confit’s got ginger in it, not quite sure. Ginger chilli marmalade, someone else thinks. A bit like hoisin sauce, the sweet taste mixes perfectly with the savoury flavouring of the duck.
Beef cheek ragu (VND110,000)
Nice, not overly rich taste. Beef is tender, comes with mushrooms and a pepper-based sauced. Perfect tapas food — the kind of thing you can dip your bread into.
Served on bread, taste is spot on, but the texture lacks the springiness of freshly marinated anchovies. Not complaining, though. After all, we’re in a big city. No sea in Hanoi.
Gravlax with blini and sour cream (VND80,000)
The only dish that was a bit of a let-down. It lacked the tang of well-pickled salmon, the depth of flavour that goes through all the flesh. When you get good gravlax, it’s to die for, so moreish you can’t stop eating it.
Aubergine caviar (VND65,000)
Kind of like baba ghanoush, but doesn’t come as a puree — it still has lumps in it, like it’s been mashed rather than blended. But actually tastes better than baba ghanoush because it’s not overly smokey. Really good.
Marinated bocconcini (VND90,000)
Someone said there’s no such thing as bad mozzarella, but there is, because I once had it. So, for another taste of this Naples-inspired dish. The cheese is slightly chewy, but just enough flavour to make the cheese stand out without being too strong. This is good. Could eat more of this.
Marinated peppers (VND50,000)
Comes with a slice of Parmesan on top. Nicely marinated, sat in the perfect space between being too soft and too hard. Well balanced.
Getting it Right
Normally we review restaurants a few months after they have been up and running. From all perspectives — service and décor through to the quality of cuisine, the music, lighting and the menu — it takes time to get it right. The fact that even the chef came up after the meal to ask our opinion shows how concerned the management is that the product is working.
They will get the place ticking eventually. The fact that only one of the 10 or so dishes we tried was disappointing, while four or five were already verging on excellent suggests that they are heading in the right culinary direction.
But as Bohemian-style, food and wine getaways go, Amato has got it right. Just don’t forget to pinch yourself when you walk out again and find yourself back on the streets of Hanoi.
Amato is at Ngo 1A Trang Tien, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
Food, Decor and Service are each rated on a scale of 0 to 15.
13 — 15 extraordinary to perfection
10 — 12.5 very good to excellent
8 — 9.5 good to very good
5 — 7.5 fair to good
0 — 4.5 poor to fair
The Word reviews anonymously and pays for all meals