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.
2005 14th St. NW. 202-747-2377. www.hanoihousedc.com. Entrees, $8 to $11.