Have you heard of the ancient town of Hoi An? Referred to as the Venice of Vietnam, with its narrow water canals, it was once the crossroads of the spice trade. Hoi An now is loved for oriental architecture influenced by the neighbouring countries Japan, China and Indonesia. Today the city has developed into a popular tourist destination, opening its streets, temples and local businesses to the curious eyes of the world. To experience Hoi An in its brilliant glory, arrive when during a full moon which adds mystery to the local night scene, where hanging lanterns shine to their brightest and the streets are overwhelmed with buzz and flavours… You can imagine my excitement when I discovered a little replica of Hoi An in Dubai, a Vietnamese restaurant in the Shangri-La Hotel.
The drive to Shangri-La on Sheikh Zayed Road is busy in all directions with Thusday partygoers. But! Curiousity is a strange thing, particularly when fed by hunger. I patiently navigated the traffic, craving authentic Vietnamese cuisine. Complimentary valet parking at Shangri-La was a nice reward for an hour of hustle, and in a perfectly fine mood I walked into the warm welcoming lights of Hoi An.
The Dubai interpretation of Hoi An was very visual with colourful lanterns, framed snapshots of Vietnam, wooden banisters, domesticated palm trees and statues of Buddha. Vibrant lights reflected in panoramic windows looked rather exotic. A little candle sparkling through the petals of a textile lotus added an oriental feel to the table.
A hot towel scented with invigorating jasmine stole my heart, and a serving of crunchy Asian crackers with a side of sweet chilly sauce, my full attention. Without further hesitation I started my food journey with a cup of green jasmine tea served in an emerald-green kettle, which was poured for me with traditional gentleness. A quick look through the menu reassured I was at the right place.
I decided to leave my appetite in the hands of beautiful Vietnamese servers April and Tam, who passionately mixed dish descriptions with anecdotes. I giggled happily, feeling as I was right in the middle of the midnight city chatting over a cup of tea with new friends. My amuse-bouche was a piece of boneless chicken steamed and seared on a pan and then topped with a yellow flower. Spiced mildly for my complicated taste, it signaled a desire to popularize traditional Vietnamese cuisine by introducing it to a wider audience. Not everyone is a crazy chilly monster like I am.
I started dinner with a selection of appetizers placed around a spicy house-made sauce. My main course consisted of baby chicken, giant shrimp and a delicious fish, tender inside and crispy out. All food was prepared using traditional techniques modernized to European taste.
The best part of my evening was a bowl of pho soup with herbs, sauces and fresh chilies on the side. I spiced up my pho to the maximum with as many chillis as possible. What a delight!