Vietnamese lite, in a pretty package
By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
The big lesson from a recent south-to-north exploration of Vietnam is not that the traditional dishes are necessarily superior to what I’ve had in this country, but that their building blocks are more vivid. In particular, the herbs and seafood in Vietnam taste brighter and fresher -- more intensely of themselves -- than what I’ve encountered in, say, Little Saigon in Northern Virginia.
Hanoi House opened in the U Street corridor in November, just after my trip abroad, and I was eager to see how the replacement for Blackbird stacked up against my meals in Vietnam. I confess to frissons of pleasure when I walked through the door of the latest from brothers Eric and Ian Hilton and drank in the narrow, dimly lighted dining room and bar. Blood-red walls and stools, and antique lamps and gold-framed mirrors, evoke French colonial-era Vietnam.
The Hiltons’ company chef, McLean native James Claudio, says he’s spending the bulk of his time at Hanoi House, inspired by the food he grew up on prepared by his Vietnamese grandmother.
The usual suspects show up on his concise menu. That means green papaya salad and garden rolls for starters and vermicelli bowls and pho among main courses. With a few exceptions, the food grounds me in Washington. That green papaya salad tossed with thread-thin beef jerky, for instance, lacks the tropical lushness and delicacy of its counterparts abroad. Spiky shrimp-and-sweet potato cakes are more crunch than flavor. My primary recollection of the vegetarian pho, bobbing with fried tofu and sliced pear, is of soy sauce, and the banh mi could use more, and tangier, julienned vegetables.
Off night? Hoping to re-create my vacation, I visited Hanoi House three times, most recently this month. The dishes that left the best impressions were the vermicelli scattered with lightly caramelized shrimp and the baguette stuffed with grilled pork. Claudio says his favorite dish is the beef-based pho, which is also my go-to noodle soup on the menu.
Hanoi House is a sensual place to find yourself -- thanks more to the scenery than the cooking.
After years of making U Street a destination for cocktails, DJs and late-night dancing, Eric and Ian Hilton are moving in on the late-night dining market, too.
Tonight, they officially unveil Hanoi House, a stylish Vietnamese restaurant in the former Blackbyrd Warehouse space. This follows on the heels of Satellite Room, the dive-ish diner serving post-concert burgers and boozy milkshakes behind the 9:30 Club.
With red velvet curtains hanging over a black lacquered bar, rich black leather booths, gilded mirrors and mismatched retro lamps turned down low, Hanoi House has a sexy date-night-to-late night vibe. “It reminds me of ‘In the Mood for Love,’” a friend said, both nailing the atmosphere and reminding me I need to re-watch that classic Hong Kong love story soon.
Of course, looks mean nothing if the food disappoints, but it doesn’t. The banh mi is the standout: cuts of chicken, beef or pork in a French baguette laden with pate, cilantro and enough jalapeno peppers to provide a generous kick. The shrimp garden rolls, loaded with scallions, were a level above the traditional pork spring rolls. Beef jerky bits elevated a tasty green papaya salad. And though I prefer meat in most dishes, the crispy tofu pho was slightly better than the beef version, thanks to a spicier broth.
Chef James Claudio, who’s also behind the menu at Marvin, looked to his grandmother, Lap Claudio, for inspiration for the menu. While she generally splits time between Vietnam and Florida, she has moved to the area for “an open ended period of time” to help get Hanoi House’s kitchen running, Ian Hilton explained.
Behind the bar, Brendan Murphy of the neighboring Gibson has crafted a short-and-sweet cocktail menu heavy on tea-based drinks: The Silk Road combines aged rum, coconut milk, black tea and a syrup of ginger, vanilla and tamarind. You have to stir it yourself – the ingredients have a tendency to separate – but it’s a rich, milky concoction that goes down smooth. I was also a fan of the Too Beaucoup, which is basically a sweeter take on a French 75 – the gin and champagne meet black tea, honey, vanilla and raspberry. It’s not overly sugary, though – there’s a good balance in the flavor. There are a half-dozen beers in bottles and cans, including the rare and very dry Japanese Yoho Aooni IPA.
This isn’t the Hilton duo’s first time peddling Vietnamese cuisine: Pho U, a pop-up Vietnamese restaurant run by Claudio and sous-chef Brendan L’Etoile, had a short stint at Montserrat House back in March; and we named the banh mi sandwich at Dickson Wine Bar one of the area’s best in our bahn mi throwdown last fall.
Hanoi House will be taking reservations for both dinner and late-night dining, keeping the kitchen open until 11 p.m. on weeknights and midnight on weekends. (Up to half of the seats will be saved for walk-in customers, Ian Hilton said.)