Forced to vacate its Old Quarter home of three years to make way for what is expected to be a boutique hotel, Namaste recently moved into a former Italian furniture showroom on Tho Nhuom. The room has a cavernous, slightly stiff feel that testifies to its previous function. Though it’s been softened with ornate arches and colourful paintings, the space remains awkwardly large and the bright lights are a bit off-putting.
But despite the slightly jarring decor, the new Namaste retains the culinary pleasures of the old, offering Indian food that’s well prepared and reasonably priced. Owner Gopi comes from the South Indian city of Chennai, which means that a large portion of the menu is given over to lighter but spicier Southern-style dishes, although four of the six chefs come from the north and offer a long roster of cream-based curries. Don’t expect toned-down spices: while most dishes are fairly mild, there are also a few authentically fiery curries for those who like it hot. When in doubt, Gopi can usually be found around the room, and he’s more than willing to dispense advice.
An Indian Feast
Start off with a plate of crispy papadams, crackers made from lentil flour (VND12,000 each) that make an ideal foil for homemade chutney. Then continue to the kebab section, where the best choice is enormous hunks of tandoori chicken (VND230,000), grilled in a charcoal oven so the outside retains a pleasant char while the inside stays tender. Another enjoyable dish is paneer tikka lucknawi (VND90,000), in which slices of homemade cheese are marinated in an array of spices and grilled, emerging with a creamy inside and skillet-crisped edges. Avoid the tandoori mushrooms (VND85,000), however. Expecting larger mushrooms, we got insubstantial nuggets, barely bite-sized: a paltry meat alternative that doesn’t justify the price tag.
Wash it all down with a lassi, a creamy drink made from whole milk yogurt that comes in flavours from passion fruit to salt; the mango one (VND48,000) is especially good. Then turn to the curries, eaten with saffron rice and massive, fluffy half-moons of naan bread brushed with melted butter. You’ll vow not to stuff yourself, but inevitably end up doing so.
That’s because the dishes are generally spot-on. Mutton Shangrilla, simmered in a delicate sauce with pepper, onion and tomato (VND165,000) is remarkably tender. Bhindi do piaza, an onion-laced okra curry that’s labeled spicy but is not particularly so (VND75,000), triggered astonishment from many of my companions, who had never come across the uniquely textured vegetable but marveled at its tender chew. Even the basics have a certain complexity: pindi ke chole (VND75,000), chickpeas in a rich tomato sauce made luxurious by a touch of cream, was a simple-sounding dish that proved intriguingly flavourful.
The room was calmly busy on a recent Saturday evening. Though most of the tables were occupied by families and large groups, there was no sense of haste, nor were there any delays. In large part, this was due to the servers, who have an air of practiced competence. They brought dishes in the correct sequence, spoke adequate English and were always ready to serve without lingering. Perhaps this is how Namaste earned its place on the top restaurants list.
Namaste is at 46 Tho Nhuom, Hoan Kiem. Tel: (04) 3935 2400
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