With restaurants in practically every city district, it’s fair to say that Vietnamese food has a firm foothold in South Korea.
But while the restaurants are many, the options are not, with most serving the same dozen dishes, half of them pho. So when faced with the abundant options here, it’s hard to know where to start.
Chefs prepare dishes at the table at Ngon Gallery in Nha Trang. (Paradise Group)
An invitation from Paradise Vietnam and its Viet Deli group of restaurants gave The Korea Herald a chance to taste what Vietnam had to offer, revealing a world of fresh, accessible delights that make it an essential destination for any foodie.
We started off in Hanoi, at Home Finest Teas Lounge, with a dish Koreans will be familiar with: bun cha -- fresh noodles served with herbs and grilled pork meatballs.
The meat came in a soup, unlike the typical version available in Seoul, which was rich and pleasant. A highlight of Vietnamese food is the way herbs pop through the delicately balanced flavors to punctuate a dish, and that was what really made the difference here, chipping in to make each mouthful a new experience.
The ingredients include coriander and mint, as you might expect, but they’re only a small part of the chorus, with Vietnamese balm, perilla and Thai basil among the others.
The teahouse also specializes in cold brew teas, which were refreshing and mild but less sweet than regular iced options.
After a quick look around the old town, we moved to Home Hanoi
, a renovated villa from the French colonial period of the early 20th century. It’s a two-story affair with a pleasant courtyard that fits the brand’s aim of providing a comfortable homelike dining atmosphere.
The meal started off spectacular with abalone and mushroom soup -- the broth is poured out into glass globes on what looks like a glowing tray of dry ice. Confounding the visuals, it was pleasantly warm and whets the appetite.
The specialty here is grilled lang fish, a local river fish with firm white flesh popular in the colder months. It’s a hands-on dish that makes it good for socializing: Diners pull the fish off its bamboo skewer and wrap it spring roll-like with noodles and vegetables.
Some dishes were like new twists on old friends. The stir-fried summer flower and garlic was almost namul-like, and the fried chicken familiar, although the black pepper sauce had an unusual kick. It came with a sliced roll of sticky rice with nurungji-like chewiness seared into the edges.
Elsewhere, the eggplant and pork ribs brought out the best of the vegetable’s natural flavor.
Chefs John Burton Race and Nguyen Thanh Tung (Paradise Group)
The food at Home restaurants is overseen by executive chef Nguyen Thanh Tung, a winner from the first series of Iron Chef Vietnam.
He explained that Vietnamese cooking starts from the principle of everyday nutrition, with balance a repeated theme in his introduction.
“Compared to other countries like Thailand, the food is sweeter and more spicy than in Vietnam,” he said, putting an emphasis on balancing flavors between dishes rather than within them.
“We try to balance the ingredients in each dish to create the taste and to retain the original flavor of our ingredients.”
“In everyday meals we always have meat and fish and seafood and vegetables and different kinds of vegetables and rice,” he added. “We always try to have at least three to five dishes in every meal.”
“We do not season so much in every dish and we use the natural flavor in every dish we use.”
While most people wouldn’t eat at a place like Home Hanoi every day, there’s still a down-to-earth feeling with most dishes.
Then again, there are always exceptions. The banana flambe is just decadent, with sticky rice providing a pleasant chew while the rum and the freshness of the banana cut through the sweet sauce.
With us set to head south, chef Nguyen gave us a hint of what to expect.
“Each region has different tastes and flavors to match the taste of the people,” he said. “In the North we do not use spicy flavors, just salty and sour. In the central region they eat the spicy food and in the south, it’s spicy and sweet.”
Before heading to the spicier central region, we took a detour to Tuan Chau Island, a popular start point for trips to Halong Bay. As you might expect from its location, at 1958 Restaurant
, things began to turn toward the sea.
A seafood soup and jellyfish salad made for a refreshing opener, with oysters, pan-fried prawns and the regional specialty fried squid cakes offering plenty of interest. There were still some satisfying sticky pork ribs to keep the meat eaters happy, but the standout of the meal was the red tilapia, with its firm, reassuring texture and tangy tomato sauce.
We moved south to Nha Trang, a resort town popular with Asian tourists for its expansive beachfront.Ngon Gallery
here is an all-you-can-eat affair looking out onto the sea, with the menu crafted with the help of Michelin-starred chef John Burton Race.
Compared to the other restaurants we visited, it’s less homely and more a place to let your hair down. Waiters whisk drinks to your table on trolleys -- soju is available -- while live musicians provide lively entertainment.
The buffet here is expansive and nicely presented, and the selection veers enough from the predictable to keep curious palates coming back. Some dishes are also prepared at the table.
The key here is seafood, and fresh -- some fresh enough to leap to a temporary reprieve. The raw highlights included some exquisite sea bass and squares of tilapia, the edges impressively seared on a salt block.
But the pride of the restaurant is the lobster, brought fresh each morning from farms out at sea. Ngon Gallery offers it as a Western-style surf-and-turf option with cheese and garlic, but you’ll be rewarded if you shun the obvious and try the tangy chili or black pepper sauce options.
With the beach behind us, we headed north, to Hoi An. The city is firmly on the map when it comes to Korean tourism. It draws more visitors from Korea than any other city and the hawkers in the old town call out in Korean as much as in English.
And it’s here among the yellow-walled villas that Home has its local restaurant.
Hoi An, like nearby Danang, is also by the sea, and seafood was a strong fixture here.
Neither I nor my fellow diner next to me were keen on oysters, but those served here won us over. I tried one raw to see if it was the raw ingredients or the chef’s skill that did the trick. It was clean and fresh, but it seems the secret really is in the cooking.
The dishes here were more seasoned than in Hanoi, but for the most part it was not really fiery.
Beef and pineapple salad mixed sharpness, sweetness and a little spice, contrasting with an accompanying dish of soft shell crab.
A big plus is the textures here -- crunchy tapioca crackers, crispy vegetables and toothsome noodles, which come in both Hoi An and Mi Quang styles. The broth that comes with the noodles is incredibly moreish, the kind of comforting, savory flavor that makes you reluctant to move on.
The next day we tried out Ngon Villa Hoi An
, the more accessible cousin to the a la carte Home. You pay per head, and can order as many dishes as you like for the same price. The idea is to offer a low-risk way for visitors to try out new dishes at a reasonable price, rather than sticking to the reassuringly familiar pho.
The duck and lemongrass salad here is very good -- crisp, crunchy and sharp, with the meat in a minor role.
Ngon Villa Danang (Paradise Group)
Dishes come in tapas portions to suit the restaurant’s aim, but you can always double up if you want more of something. The seafood, such as the caramelized clams and the red snapper, both balancing a mild sweetness with a flavorful seasoning, might get you seeking seconds.
The final leg of our journey was another Ngon Villa in Danang.
The villa feels larger yet cozier than its Hoi An sister, and has a small garden and two floors of seating. Gentle live music is provided every night here, while it’s on three times a week in Hoi An.
Several of the dishes here are also available in Hoi An but there are plenty that highlight Danang’s own character.
Most famous are the Danang rice pancakes, the soft pancake contrasting with the rice paper wrapping and the crisp salad within.
Other highlights were river mussels with sesame crackers. Free from the briny taste that can come with marine mussels, the dish had a subtle but deep savory flavor profile.
Another was the sweet and sour seafood -- which reminded me of what had charmed me on the first day -- with the “crab claws” herb taking a good dish to perfection.
By Paul Kerry (firstname.lastname@example.org