a touch of homesickness sends us out to find something other than Vietnamese cuisine
30.03.2009 73 °F
We've had an amazing time in Vietnam and the food has been one of the most incredible things about it. We can't mention our trip without talking about at least one of the the outstanding meals we had or dream about waking up to a hot bowl of pho ga for breakfast. Mmmmm... But I digress. Our last night in Hanoi and in an effort to start waking our bodies up to the realities of our impending Western diet we search for a good restaurant that will serve us something other then local fare. We consult our Lonely Planet Vietnam guidebook to discover that just outside our hotel door and to the left is a charming French/Spanish inspired restaurant called La Salsa touting tapas and wine. Oh, we haven't had a glass of wine since we arrived (okay- we did have two bottles of merlot when we lunched with Mr. Chau, but that's it- really! Oh, right, we had that bottle of sauvignon blanc with Mr. Thai. But really- that's all...)and are suddenly missing our favorite beverage immensely. Why not? We want to see if the culinary scene here can support international food as well as it does it's local. It is not an extensive menu but it doesn't need to be if everything on it is good. We order a nice bottle of Corbieres and start with a salad to share. We are happy to see that the wine is kept in a climate controlled cabinet so a slightly chilled (it can get quite warm here) bottle arrives and real wine glasses. Such a treat! The wine is smooth and not tannic with notes of leather, cinnamon, cocoa and stone fruit. It doesn't take it long to warm up which enhances the flavors and subtly changes the wine. We order a lovely meal that pairs very nicely with it. The warm goat cheese salad arrives first. Warm slices of thick wheat bread with melted goat cheese topped with toasted walnuts and other slices with an eggplant spread (similar to baba ganoush, but without the smokiness) sit on top of lightly dressed greens. Our meals come next: S has duck breast with black currant sauce accompanied with a few tasty potato croquettes and amazing wild mushrooms some that almost looked like thick apple slices, L has seafood paella that is not overwhelming in saffron flavor (she likes that) and is piled with fresh clams, squid and prawns. Having been seriously disappointed with all things dessert in restaurants here in Hanoi (with the exception of the unforgettable green sticky rice ice cream bars - but then again, they weren't from a restaurant, were they?) we opt out of that final dish. We enjoy the remainder of our wine and head back to our hotel, sated and happy.
We wake up the next morning to one last breakfast of pho ga then check out. Our hotel has ordered us a taxi to take us to the airport. We conveniently pay our hotel clerk for the taxi in advance, maybe a bit pricier then we would have liked but then we know she gets a cut out of that and we were going to tip her anyway - she was a sweetheart. The taxi ride to the airport is not as crazy as the ride in. Traffic is much more mellow and there are not as many interesting sights to see, or maybe we've just gotten used to it all! Still, a few last photos are taken enroute. We arrive a little more then 2 hours before our flight to Taipei. Noibai airport is a bit confusing: you have to look for the TV monitors that show you which airline is at which queue- there aren't signs for specific airline desks as you see in many other airports. The monitors are small and hard to see but we soon find the one for EVA Airlines (because the employees arrived and turned them on...) and we get in line. They actually don't start checking people in until 2 hours before the flight so we have to wait a little longer before the line starts to move. With our bags checked all the way to Seattle, we head to the gate, a quick pass through security and then it's more wait time. Sure, we could have come later, but then luck would probably have given us longer lines and more hassles. Oh, well. As we head down the gangway to board the plane, the sun suddenly breaks through the ever- present cloud cover and, voila, beautiful day in Hanoi! It figures.
Our flight to Taipei is fairly quick and easy, about 2 1/2 hours but we have a 7 hour layover there. We don't really mind, we plan to do some duty free shopping and check out the beef noodle stand that our friend Suzanne said we absolutely need to try. Suzanne had a layover in Taipei in February on her way to Indonesia and has raved about this noodle soup stand upstairs next to the Starbucks. We are not quite hungry when we first arrive but decide to scout out the place first, then come back later. We see a dozen people with faces buried in huge ceramic bowls of some soupy concoction, happily slurping up noodles and broth. We think "this could be good!". We get a pathetic latte (I already desperately miss ca phe sua!), stroll around the shops, buy some scotch (12-year old Balvenie Doublewood, for those who care), get a quick massage then head back for a little dinner. The menu on the board is confusing. It just reads: appetizers, main dish, meat ball soup and beer and soft drinks. Hmmmm. We guess it must be the meatball soup we need to order, which we do. What arrives is not a gargantuan ceramic bowl of beefy goodness but a small plastic bowl of clear broth with a few sliced scallions floating around in it and a trio of pathetic rubbery meatballs that are cut to somehow resemble the sandworms of Dune. (S. thinks they look like grey Pacmen) I swear to god, if you dropped one it would bounce! This can't be right! Where are the noodles? Where's the highly touted soupy goodness? Where's the rave-worthy beefiness? Suzanne would not, could not, steer us wrong. We glance around at the throng of Taiwanese teenage boys who have marvelous bowls parked in front of them and we wonder what we did wrong. I'm not terribly hungry anymore but I decide to make one last attempt. As I approach the counter for a second time I realize that there is an array of plastic realistic-looking food items in a case under the counter. Aha! Ye Olde Fake Food Display! These items are not on the menu board and one of them looks suspiciously like a wonton beef noodle soup that Suzanne would enjoy. I order one so that we can share and within a few minutes a huge bowl of steaming darkly colored broth with thick noodles, plump wontons and thin slices of beef appears. This has got to be it. It is rich in flavor with a spiciness that is cooled by the Kirin beer we purchased. Tender slices of beef and steamed wontons are consumed rapidly. One bowl is more then enough for two. We cast fleeting glances at our now discarded and pathetic meatball soup and laugh. I'm glad we eventually got it right.
With that done, we head to our gate to patiently wait for our flight. In Elite class it's a relatively easy 10 1/2 hour flight back to the States. We take off 20 minutes late but land 20 minutes early to a cold drizzly Seattle evening. Sigh. Gotta break out the sweaters and jeans again. It's been a wonderful trip.
~L (and S)