June 27, 2019

A Vietnamese Chef in Tel-Aviv

Escorting an amateur Vietnamese chef to a kosher Vietnamese-fusion restaurant in the heart of Tel Aviv was a curious thing. The experience spanned the gamut of reactions: incredulity (mostly at the pareve desserts — “How is this not dairy?”), nostalgia, confusion (“Wait, are the sous chefs Chinese or Vietnamese?”), a healthy dose of critique and no shortage of sheer, culinary pleasure.  

Twenty-something Vu Xuan Minh couldn’t stop snapping photos. It helps that the restaurant — Cà Phê Hanoi — boasts probably the most Instagrammable food in Tel Aviv. Embellished with edible flowers, lemongrass cylinders, coconut flakes and plump lychees, the dishes and the cocktails are as much a feast for the eyes as they are for the taste buds. 

The restaurant’s giant red doors welcome visitors with paper lanterns and colorful banners. Vietnamese idioms lend the place an authentic atmosphere, although, as Minh pointed out, the best Vietnamese food he’s ever tasted won’t be found in trendy, concept restaurants. Rather, it’s sold on the street from grimy carts. 

However, almost without exception, all the dishes at Cà Phê Hanoi — and there are many — satisfied Minh’s exacting palate. We opened with — what else? — spring rolls. Minh said that in high-class restaurants back home in Ho Chi Minh City, diners roll their own spring rolls from a selection of fillings in the center of the table. “It’s a bonding experience for the whole family,” he said. 

The kab kem (meal sharing), was a veritable party in the mouth, exploding with flavor and competing textures such as salmon tartar, smoked tomatoes, mushroom leaf and chopped peanuts. Next  was banh mi, a sub with chicken, aioli sriracha and smoked goose, which the French introduced to Vietnam in the 18th century when the country was under French control.

The French also reassigned the role of the cow in Vietnamese tradition as a culinary staple. “Before then, the cow was like the pet dog,” Minh said. “The cow was a very important animal in my culture because it would plow the field. We never ate it.” 

In high-class restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City, diners roll their own spring rolls from a selection of fillings in the center of the table. “It’s a bonding experience for the whole family.”  — Vu Xuan Minh

Minh translated the Vietnamese catchphrase emblazoned on the wall: “The fatter the cow, the better the house.”

Beef dominated much of what we ordered, from the bun-bo (rice vermicelli and beef soup) to the boa beef ragout to the pho bo soup — arguably Vietnam’s pièce de résistance. The soup is slow cooked over nine hours with bone marrow, star anise, cinnamon, sirloin, rice noodles and coriander. 

Chef Raz Coszka  served us his off-menu special: mango butterfly fish — fried sea-bass splayed opened to resemble a butterfly — and topped with mango salad. Minh’s face split into a grin. “Now this reminds me of home,” he said.

Dinner ended with a round of dairy-defying desserts, courtesy of the restaurant’s kosher status. The coconut ice cream — a creation by Ofer Aharoni, one of Cà Phê Hanoi’s partners — and another unadvertised special, a white chocolate mousse sandwiched between passion fruit syrup and a chocolate chip pastry, had us both salivating and skeptical that it really was dairy-free.  

The meal was washed down with cocktails — works of art that you feel guilty for drinking — but Minh was unimpressed. He said he was desperate for traditional Vietnamese drip coffee.