Located inside a recently restored Indochina-French (possibly what the IF stands for?) colonial villa just off Ha Bai Trung, the restaurant has been tastefully decked out to evoke memories of the 1920s. Limestone plastered walls, antique ceramic titled flooring and original furnishings such as louvered window shutters and oak swinging doors replete with authentic Chinese-made hinges are the important details that help separate Café IF from the competition.

The menu offers a concise range of traditional Vietnamese cuisine cooked fresh to order without MSG. Starters and mains include the usual suspects of goi ngo sen (lotus stem salad), goi cuon (spring rolls), lau (hot pot) and com chien (fried rice in clay pot). Each provides the customer with the option to centre the dish with either pork, beef, chicken, fish or a vegetarian equivalent.

Upon the recommendations of the very attentive waiting staff, we opt for the cha gio (egg rolls) with Hai Phong-style crab and da nuong cuoi (hot stone grille) with squid to start. First out are the egg rolls. Served with a small amount of rice noodles, mixed herbs, lettuce and fish sauce, this starter is divine. Neither too dry nor greasy, the amount of crab packed into the lightly battered rolls is surprisingly generous. Tasty enough on its own, the mild tang of the fish sauce only heightens the flavours this dish already possesses.

The da nuong cuoi turns out to be a real treat, not only to the taste buds but also on the eyes. Served in a clay pot on a platter of red-hot stones, thick slices of raw squid prepared simply with olive oil, salt and basil leaves are covered with a lid and cooked for three minutes at our table. The waiter returns half way through to turn each slice over before signalling its completion. Accompanied by a homemade green chilli sauce made from sugar, vinegar and bell peppers, the squid is succulent, juicy and only a tad chewy. The chilli sauce gives the dish a slight yet noticeable kick, leaving a mildly fiery aftertaste.

For the main course we order ga nuong muoi ot (chicken marinated in chilli and salt) with a side of steamed rice and an old Vietnamese faithful — rau muong xao toi (morning glory spinach and zucchini flowers sautéed with garlic). We’re told the cut of chicken has come from the thigh but, to us, resembles the breast. Regardless, the chicken is slightly dry and benefited from a touch of chilli and soy sauce.

The morning glory on initial taste is perfect, the spinach and zucchini soft yet crunchy, and the saltiness of the garlic counterbalances the neutral taste of the chicken. However, after delving deeper into the plate we discover that most of the rau muong has been overcooked, the discolouration giving the game away. It’s a shame and pretty pricey at VND128,000 a plate, but still edible.

Full but not defeated we end our meal with fried banana flambéed in pineapple whiskey with a side of strawberry ice cream. In short, this dessert is delicious and another visual delight. Warm, sticky and gooey in the inside, crunchy on the outside, the banana resembles an oversized deep fried fritter and is more than enough for two. The cold snap of the ice cream initially clashes with the heat of the flambéed banana, but its smooth texture highlights its partner’s more solid components. Highly recommended.

The Prices

Hai Phong style egg rolls - VND48,000
Hot stone grilled squid - VND138,000
Chicken in chilli and salt - VND138,000
Morning glory - VND128,000
Banana flambé - VND68,000

The Ratings

Food: 10      

Dector : 12      

Service: 14


Rating System

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

Mystery Diner

The Mystery Diner is a person hailing from a country that may or may not be Vietnam. S/he can be seen frequently in the restaurants and cafes of Hanoi and HCMC, searching for the most delicious meals each city has to offer. Look for the masked figure in a cape, lurking in the darkest corners of your neighbourhood com tam or pho joint.

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