Thursday, 24 February 2011

Memories of Taste: The tale of two restaurants

Contemporary Overseas Vietnamese food in Brisbane, Australia.

Simply Duo, Nundah

On my friend Jeremy”s birthday we went to Simply Duo in Nundah for dinner. It was very exciting for us to see Thang, my old Green Papaya head chef and his wife Thanh who are chefs/ owners of this new popular North side ethnic restaurant.
Jeremy was so happy to get a parking spot right outside “Simply Duo”.
The dining room was buzzing and it reminded us of eating places in Hanoi. We both went there in April 2009 to see the Regurgitator played at the Hanoi American Club.
Simply Duo’s small dining room has the counter at the far end with simple soft drink display units. Behind the counter is the small kitchen where Thang cooks Vietnamese food  from Wednesday to Saturday nights. The dining room is basic with small movable tables and modern plywood chairs. The wall colour is of a light greyish colour with funny light fittings. There are a mish-mash of pictures on the wall. The diners were mainly youngish, noisy and happy. They were all in groups!
Thanh welcomed us with warm hugs. She felt like a small child in my embrace. Thanh has single- handed started her daytime only Café a few years back for breakfast and lunch.  She buit up her customer base quickly due to her open matter of fact and humane manner. She is the perfect Vietnamese wife for Thang. In Vietnamese we say “Vo dam”. 
The small menu contained all the old Green Papaya favourites: prawn and pork roll with yellow bean sauce; crispy vegetarian roll with a choice of 3 house-made sauces; green papaya salad, mung bean vermicelli & crab meat, cubed beef steak, chicken chilli with red cabbage, and all the desserts. I felt contented because I knew Thang did learn something from me despise his phlegmatic attitude when he was my head chef.
We ordered Hanoi coffee while looking at the menu. Thanh could save money on condensed milk -  the coffee was super sweet.
Due to my pho obsession as well as secretly wanted to compare Thang’s stock to mine, we decided on Spring rolls, normal pho and spicy pho, and hoping we could fit in some other dishes after, but we were both full and had a quick walk about before desserts of black rice and crème caramel.
The spring rolls were traditional -  long and round - but cut diagonally lengthwise, nicely plated on a long plate with oak lettuces but no fresh herbs or pickles. The rolls were dusted with flour before frying to keep them crisp. The three home made sauces were yellow bean sauce, the clear dipping sauce and hoisin sauce slightly diluted with vinegar. I ended up just using the dipping sauce. All the sauces were on the salty side. 
The condiments with the pho were chilli sauce lemon wedges and extra fish sauce for both pho, the stock is sweet but lacked the depth of the typical pho stock. Spicy pho could be a short cut to Bun Bo Hue (Hue Beef Boodle soup) , with ground red chilli. Thang was still over generous with noodles, I managed to eat 2/3 of mine. The crème caramel was good, Thanh has been making this dessert for a few years now, the black rice was to my taste also on the sweet side and not well cooked. Both were plated with fresh strawberry slices with icing sugar sprinkled on the rim of the plates.
I looked over the other tables and recognised some old Green Papaya dishes, I am glad that my style of food is being kept alive at Simply Duo, where imagination can take you to a modest Vietnamese restaurant in Hanoi and of course with much cleaner and tastier food.
However, always remember that taste is very personal and mostly a good front of house can make or break a restaurant.

Red Lotus, Fortitude Valley

After 3 days lugging books and junks from upstairs to downstairs, we rewarded ourselves with a dinner out. My friend told me to try out the “Red Lotus” -  a newly opened Vietnamese Restaurant in the Valley. He read a glorious review. So we booked for 7.30pm.
We arrived a bit before 7.30.  The restaurant is in the Mall; it is big, bright and brand new. Red is the dominant colour. We walked thru the front door, it was like walking into another world, soft light accentuated by bright red lights showing off large painted earthenware pots with decoration dividing the dining room into two sections. The large bar is to one side of the dining rooms. Our table was behind the dividing decoration, the main theme is of Lotus - of course.  Against the walls are lounge chairs upholstered in bright floral plastic/cotton fabric. They look comfortable and make the dining room more in tune with modern trend in food industry.
The third dining is in the area connecting between kitchen and front of house.
We spent over 20 minutes studying the atmosphere, the other diners, who were mostly young of multi racial mix, noisy and all in waiting. We studied the food menu and drink menu, but not one staff could be seen to gain more information on the menu and looking at the faces of the diners at next table, we thought it would be easier and faster if we order the Ha long set menu, which had fresh rice paper rolls with prawn and pork, grilled mussels with pork mince, steamed rice vermicelli noodles with sugar cane prawns, campfire beef, combination steamboat, caramelised pork ribs cooked in clay pot, steamed 
jasmine rice and banana fritters with vanilla ice cream.
After a long wait, someone came to take our order.
Another long wait, 3 chubby rolls on a plate were plonked on the table without a word. I managed to get the attention from another FOH and enquired about the sauce. He looked puzzled and came back with a cup of fish sauce diluted with vinegar!!! My friend said but what about the bean sauce?
The grilled mussel & pork mince also came without any dipping sauce, and all I could taste was pork and shiitake mushroom. Very average, but It is at least an effort of a new dish. I think this is a version of the famous steamed snail with ginger leaves in VN.
Another wait, the campfire beef arrived. It is intriguing. A white soup bowl with slices of beef covered with slices of red onions and tomatoes and cubes of butter, sitting on top of a deep pasta plate with 1cm of methylates spirit. It was lighted and we were told it would take 4 minutes to heat up. The beef slices were packed in solidly, it was an effort to loosen them up so they could be cooked evenly, the flame was so high that the side of the white bowl was burnt to black by the time the beef was ready. The dish was accompanied by a plate of rice vermicelli, oak lettuce, a few tired mint sprigs, a few pieces fancy cut rounds of carrot and daikon, a bowl of dipping sauce with a few shredded carrot, and a plate of rice papers and a bowl of water. We were to make a rice paper rolls with the cooked beef and all the condiments. Another version of grilled beef “bo nuong vi”.
The third dish came in the same scenario: noodle lettuce and  rice paper, same sauce and instead of beef it was prawn on sugar cane. The prawn mixture dominant taste was of  pork paste.
We were getting bored with the rice paper and rice vermicelli routine by then and looking forward to the main courses, however the steamboat was ordinary and the pork ribs was super salty, both were served with steamed rice!  We thought the banana fritters would be the night saver, after another wait - 3 cups of ice cream top with a single tinned litchi arrived; we did not get any explanation about the alternative dessert. So we gave up and paid the bill. At the counter I found out the part owner was Australian born Vietnamese who speaks funny overseas Vietnamese and the absent owner has no previous food industry experience.
So, not much can be said about this new restaurant except that it is not worth even mentioning it to anybody.

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