When the mayo-laden layers of doner kebab banh mi don’t cut it anymore, head to the Syrena Center on Xuan Dieu for an altogether different dish that goes by the same name but bears little resemblance to the Vietnamese sandwich. I’m not suggesting you enter the mall; instead, veer to the side, where you’ll find Nan N Kabab, an unassuming joint located in what used to be Ba Chi Em, a bun bo nam bo and pho ga restaurant at the end of a row of tiny shops.
Surrounded by green trees and dangling vines, the quiet patio dining area has a pleasant, laid-back vibe. The bamboo chairs and tables appear to be a leftover from Ba Chi Em, although the patterned fabric and colourful posters draped in improvised fashion over the bamboo walls makes it clear that this is no longer a Vietnamese eatery.
As the name of the restaurant suggests, the menu is basic — essentially grilled flatbread and grilled meat — but the flavours are authentic, something hard to find in Hanoi. Chicken seekh kababs (VND145,000) are marinated in a chilli-laced paste and grilled until golden but still tender. They’re served without the skewer, which makes them easy to wrap in broad triangles of nan.
Servers have a reasonable grasp of English and are helpful and accommodating. The menu, however, needs to be organised in a more comprehensive fashion. Kababs are thrown haphazardly onto the page; as a kabab novice, I wanted to know the difference between the multiple varieties so I would feel less like I was ordering blindly. The menu offers several types of chicken kabab alone; what differentiates them? Country of origin? Flavourings?
Some indication of spice levels could also be useful. While I (a person with self-described moderate spice tolerance) found the chicken seekh kabab just spicy enough to satisfy, a friend with zero spice tolerance nearly started to cry. She preferred the succulent chicken reshmi kabab (VND135,000), which offered a similarly complex flavour with a hint of garlic and almond but no chilli throb.
Made for Sharing
On the face of it, the kababs are also a bit pricey when compared to Indian restaurants in town like Khazaana and Namaste. But don’t be fooled. It’s done differently here — the portions are more generous and easy to share. So pricewise it’s not so different. Each dish also comes accompanied by a flavourful mint-coriander chutney and a crisp salad of tomato, onion and cucumber. Ask for yoghurt sauce — a thin but creamy accompaniment that can also help dilute any incidental chilli burn.
If your mouth is still on fire, you can also try the mint lassi (VND45,000), a tangy, cooling yogurt drink with a refreshing hint of mint. The nan bread can also kill the heat, although it’s different to those at other Indian restaurants in town: thin rather than fluffy, without the uneven char from the grill that usually provides that smoky flavour. And the filled nans are meager, especially the cheese nan (VND80,000), which comes with a measly scattering of shredded cheese rather than the gooey filling of melted cheese one envisions.
A large bowl of creamy homemade hummus garnished with lime and olives (VND85,000), however, nearly atoned for this error. Rich and garlicky, it evoked the seaside vistas of the eastern edge of the Mediterranean; it was easy to wipe the bowl clean.
There are slim pickings for vegetarians — something fried in batter and called ‘vegetable cutlets’, a few paneer and vegetable dishes. A dish of vegetables tossed in turmeric and curry powder and grilled like kababs (VND100,000) feels a bit overpriced: maybe the spices need to be imported, but the cauliflower, eggplant and pepper surely come from local fields. Still, it’s a decent vegetable plate, filled with spices and the smoky char of the grill, and with the green trees and the breeze of the electric fan, it almost feels like you’re in the countryside.
Nan n Kabab is at 49 Xuan Dieu, Tay Ho
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