Thursday 31 December 2015

A La Folie Hanoi: Proper French Cooking with Vietnamese Flair

They say that whether you like it or not, your children will invariably pick up some of the things you do. In my case as a child, I have found this statement largely to be true. From M, I learned the pleasure of seeking out the new and exciting in a foreign land, and from D, the joy of speaking to strangers at bars. 

Combine this, and you have a top travel tip: Visit a local watering hole early on, and ask the bartender or any of the regulars where the best restaurants, sights and attractions are. They've got the intel, so mine it for all you're worth. 

Christmas 2015 saw J and I making our way round a list of local breweries (Doing beers mainly in the Czech style) that K's friend recommended us (Thanks guys!), taking in the numerous art galleries that dot the city and touring the sights, before finding our way to a small wine store. Paying for our bottle of easy-drinking red, I asked the Frenchman (An obvious regular, he was picking up a delivery package and was on first-name basis with almost everyone at the store) at the till next to me for what he thought was the best French restaurant in Hanoi. His answer - A La Folie - was immediate, and his praise for this Vietnamese take on proper French cooking was effusive. I was sold. 

J and I quickly traipsed over to make a reservation for Christmas Dinner, and went back to our apartment to rest and freshen up, confident we would return in the next two hours. But an unexpected late afternoon rain turned our short nap into an epic sleep, and we ended up having instant noodles for Christmas instead. But that is never a hardship when you're young. 

Still, I love French cuisine. Having come so tantalizingly close only for my plans to be unexpectedly thwarted, I now wanted to dine at A La Folie more than ever. I swore we had to return. My desire bordered a little, as it were, on madness.

A cursory Google-based survey of French cuisine in Hanoi brings up mainly information on how Vietnamese food as we know it today derives a fair amount of influence from the colonial French. What the front page neglects to mention is that there remains a lively gastronomic scene adapting this cuisine for the Vietnamese palate, while still allowing the food to retain its quintessential Frenchness. 

A La Folie is a perfect example of simple but well-executed modern French bistro fare, spiced with a hint of local sensibilities, which may have something to do with the fact that it's co-owned by a Hanoian, a Frenchman, and a French-Vietnamese. Situated in a quiet street just 10 minutes from busy Hoan Kiem Lake, the restaurant is a cozy two-storey affair in the Vietnamese equivalent of a shop-house. It's casual but very charming, and we had the entire upstairs dining area to ourselves for most of lunch, which was a massive stroke of good luck. 

We settled in with an easy-drinking red and some freshly-prepared bruschetta before getting down to the serious task of perusing the menu proper. It was tough going, but I eventually managed to whittle down my choices to two appetizers and two mains, keeping my fingers crossed that there'd be room left over for dessert. 

Spoiler alert: There was, if barely. 

The pâté I ordered was a wonderfully meaty affair, and came with a heaping dollop of onion jam. Spread in a thick layer atop one of the many toasty baguette slices, it was something I could have very happily eaten as a meal on its own. But bigger and better things lay ahead.

Even today, when I mention the prawns we had at lunch, J's eyes widen with delight. They were a heady taste of summer in the wintertime, big and succulent. The dish itself was beautifully composed as well, the lovely pink hue of the prawns really popping against the avocado and tomato. 

The first of our mains, the steak was beautifully cooked, but in a meal with dishes that were truly outstanding, ultimately felt rather forgettable. Our other main on the other hand... 

I felt like duck, and picked out the rather mysterious New Year Special, which also happened to be the most expensive thing on the menu. We'd seen ducks everywhere in the countryside, and I wasn't entirely sure what was taking this dish to the next level price and taste-wise, until it appeared in front of me - a generous portion of perfectly seared duck breast topped with the single biggest piece of foie gras I'd ever seen on a plate.

Each mouthful of duck-and-foie was a meaty, oily pleasure and conjured nothing less than the feeling of sheer decadence, quite fitting as a celebration of the old year and the year ahead. 

Dessert was a deceptively light (but quite shamelessly rich) tiramisu, served in a chocolate cup. Everything on the plate was edible, down to the chocolate and coconut encrusted cookie wand, and I systematically demolished it down to the last crumb. 

It was a truly lovely meal, and we walked out so full and so happy I thought I was going to burst. The initial missing out and subsequent wait had honed my wanting to a fine point, and perhaps given me rather unrealistic expectations. But to my absolute delight it was such a wonderful afternoon at A La Folie from start to finish, and my soul was deeply satisfied. 

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