In an era before Vietnamese pho became universally known, Spices Garden was one of the first hotel restaurants to introduce foreign guests and dignitaries to Vietnamese cuisine. This is what I’m told by the silk ao dai-clad Nguyen Kim Nhung, the restaurant manager.
And what an introduction it still is.
Steamed rice cakes, simmering noodle dishes, chilled delicacies and creative fusion desserts top bountiful carts, baskets and food stands at the lunch buffet.
Pick and Mix
I started with beef grilled to order. Imported from New Zealand, this tender steak is the finest beef I’ve tasted in Vietnam. I also sampled a frog leg ‘drumstick’ and the signature Hanoi cha ca in my first of many rounds. The winner of Round One was a shrimp paste lollipop on a piece of sugarcane (chao tom), sweet and smoky from the grill.
I thoroughly enjoyed the steaming soups, simmering for hours in preparation; the earthy bun thang, a complex concoction with finely julienned egg, meat, mushrooms, vegetables and bun noodles, and piping hot broth ladled over top; the beef pho also stood out — unlike many an offering on the street it had a distinct aroma of cinnamon and star anise. Perhaps the restaurant’s namesake?
The banh cuon created in front of us was enchanting. Dipping her ladle in a milky white batter, a woman swirled it over a taut gauzy cloth suspended over steaming water. After removing the delicate crepe, she filled it with a mixture of pork and mushroom, rolled it up and served it to us with a dipping sauce.
The fresh, paper-thin and tender banh cuon were unlike any others I’ve tasted in Hanoi. Made with top-notch ingredients, it was perhaps no surprise.
From there I travelled beyond the borders of Vietnam and delved into fusion and non-Vietnamese dishes — fresh sashimi and sushi, housemade pate and French baguettes. Finally the desserts; moist chocolate cake smothered in an equally rich sauce; layered cake with buttercream frosting topped with fresh raspberries; young rice crème brulee and local fruits. The chef stopped by our table to offer us a cup of green tea made with fresh leaves.
The experience at Spices Garden is not for the budget conscious. Weekend lunch buffet costs VND1,075,000 per person (Monday to Friday it’s VND760,000). Dishes are also available from the a la carte menu.
Yet for those of you who know your way around street food stands and the language, you won’t discover anything new. What Spices Garden offers transcends the food — it’s the experience. A perfect place for an extravagant treat — for Vietnamese and foreign visitors alike. Become a regular patron, and you just might get a pair of personalised chopsticks kept in the case at the entrance.
Before I knew it, hours had passed. My cellphone began to buzz and I was transported back into the present. Reluctantly leaving my urban oasis, I stepped out into the noise and heat of the street to hail a cab, still smiling. — Jill Kester
Spices Garden is at the Sofitel Metropole Legend Hanoi, 15 Ngo Quyen, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi