Musings (more like rambling thoughts) of a Cardiff based lawyer obsessed with food and wine
Since visiting Vietnam nigh on 15 year ago (God is it that long), I have had a enduring love affair with the cuisine of that fascinating country (still have nightmares about crossing the road over there mind – bloody terrifying having to walk out into a never ending stream of mopeds hoping it will part “Red Sea – esque” to accommodate you as a pedestrian, with my advice being follow a local and don’t whatever you do stop or change the pace you walk across the road).
I mean tell me where else in the world can you get your dong out at the end of a restaurant meal and use it to pay the bill (they actually seemed to prefer dollars)?
Unlike many Far Eastern cuisines, heat often takes more of a back seat in Vietnamese food, with the stars being fragrant herbs and delicate spicing. There is also an enduring reference in Vietnamese food to its French colonial past, as part of French Indochina.
Mrs. SF and I had a fantastic meal of high end French food in the Grande Dame Hotel that is the Sofitel Legend Metropole, where we stayed whilst in Hanoi. Amazingly, we got this meal free based on a voucher given to us by the people who picked us up from the Airport (I had organised it all independently, much to Mrs. SF’s concern, so it was very nice touch which allowed me to be very smug indeed).
Mind you it was an interesting (to say the least) experience with the 5 lane motorway just ending half way from the airport and regressing into pretty much a dirt track (I assume they have finally finished it now). Whilst on the motorway it was open to all comers from top end BMWs and Mercedes to carts pulled by oxen, bicycles and families of 4 plus (and a live pig – I kid you not – trussed up at the back) all on the one moped.
The meal was superb and better than many a meal I have had in top notch French places and was a first taste of the culinary delight of Vietnam that were to follow.
Perhaps the closest continuing throw backs to France is the Vietnamese people’s love of strong coffee and the baguette (the fact that the duty on wine, unlike elsewhere in the Far East were it is ruinously high, is low was also a big bonus for me). In both cases the ever ingenious Vietnamese have given it their own twist.
This brings me to Hanoi 1991, a new Vietnamese coffee house and banh mi/my joint located in the rather pretty Royal Arcade in Cardiff City centre.
As this place is more a coffee house than a food joint (it does both), I have reversed my usual format with the drink more to the fore.
Inside it has a nice relaxed vibe and the colour scheme and general decor has that feel of a place in Vietnam (lots of red and green).
Downstairs is rather nice,
as is upstairs (not sure about my creaky knees mind in terms of the top left pic. below – defo. comfy booths for an oldie like me rather than sitting cross legged, as pretty sure I would never get up again).
Nice space for a coffee, a bite to eat and a natter I thought.
The drinks menu pretty much covers the full ambit of Vietnamese coffees, with some interesting twists.
Despite having been to Vietnam, I have never had egg coffee (Civet shit coffee – kopi luwak – yes, egg coffee no). Seemed rather apt in the run up to Easter (the season of vile “chocolate” eggs and I mean chocolate in the loosest of senses) to try an egg coffee for the first time.
Egg coffee (standard one is £3.85) is an intriguing drink which got a very Peter Kay reaction on Instagram of “Egg …… coffee!!!! You mean in the same cup – egg and coffee” when I posted a picture.
It is strong hot black coffee topped by a cold mixture of egg yolk, sugar and condensed milk whipped together to a zabliaone/slightly loose, whipped, custard sort of texture.
I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but I found the contrasting textures, hot coffee and cold topping and sweet and bitter flavours really rather pleasing. Not perhaps a “your first thing in the morning coffee”, but one I will certainly try again of a lunch time and later.
Not very beard friendly I have to say, but I won’t show you the horror of my egg coffee coated tashe!!!
I also tried a brown coffee with a mix of both standard and condensed milk in it (£2.95 – I think, with me having had it free as I wandered in being nosey before they opened and had a chat with them leading to them offered me a coffee to try), in this case iced, to take away.
Again the sweet and bitter combo from the condensed milk (tempered by the standard milk) and strong black coffee made for a nice contrast and a very refreshing drink. Great if we have a repeat of last year’s summer and with the current rather nice Bank Holiday weather.
On a “sit in” visit, after they had fully opened, I went for a traditional drip coffee (£2.25).
I have recollections of these contraptions (we have one in the house) from Nha Trang market in Central Vietnam where I bought one (apparently) at a vastly inflated price (it cost peanuts regardless).
The word clearly got around that there was a sucker in town and Mrs. SF and I were then besieged by market vendors trying to flog the “idiot Westerners” their wares. I feigned stupidity (I have the look and actions of an idiot surprisingly off pat 🙄) and we managed to escape with my dong pretty much intact.
You have to be a bit patient with these as it takes a while to drip through, but when it does it is proper “wake me up” coffee with a rich deep flavour.
You can have it black or with condensed milk. I like both, but think it is at its purest when it is full on (“Heart of Darkest” – had to jemmy an “Apocalypse Now” reference in here somehow) black. In that form it is a supercharged, espresso sized, coffee.
The question that immediately came to my mind on seeing the food menu was “Isn’t it banh mi?” (Know a thing or two about typos me – close to World champ at them 😁), but apparently either “mi” or “my” can be used – the latter more so in the North of Vietnam (a quick check of Wikipedia confirmed this as correct, as much as Wikipedia ever can be and that is consistent with the Hanoi in their name).
Classic banh my/mi stuff on there, with the seemingly odd fusion of rustic French (pâte in baguette) and Vietnamese (liberal use of fragrant herbs, spices, pickled veg and soy sauce). Have to say if you don’t like pork liver pâte much there are slim pickings for you in this place eating wise.
Think they missed a trick by not naming the “Morning Classic ” banh mi/my the “Morning Glory”, what with the “dong” currency and all. Actually it makes perfect sense, as morning glory is an edible plant extensively used in Vietnamese cooking, so go wash your mind out with soap and water!
Lucky I am rather partial to any pâte and went for the Hanoi 1991 Special (£5.45), which alluded to pork three ways (pork liver pâte, pork roll and pork cake).
To this seeming “panoply of pork’ was added pickled vegetables, herbs and a chilli sauce (sweet or hot at your option).
Nice flavour to this with the pâte and Asian herbs and spices working rather well together (bit more would have been nice). My choice of hot chilli sauce added a nice bit of heat to the equation.
My main qualm was the meat filling element seemed a little sparse. Very nice, but for the price (a not cheap £5.45) I thought it could have been, perhaps, a bit more loaded filling wise.
I have enjoyed all three styles of coffee I have had at Hanoi 1991, especially (to my surprise) the egg coffee. I am rather taken with it and it makes for a nice change from the norm. I suspect fans of the pumpkin latte (never had one) would love it.
In terms of the banh mi/my offering, I liked the flavours on display. I do, however, think they could load up a touch more on the fillings bearing in mind prices start at £4.45 and go up to £5.45.
Would I go back? Yes, it is an interesting and tasty addition to the Cardiff food and drink scene. Something a bit different and that is always welcome in my view.
Whilst common in Vietnam, they may want to think about their use of plastic cups and straws, as well as cellophane lids, in terms of takeaway drinks. Perhaps they are recyclable ones, but I somehow doubt it. I am not au fait with what are and aren’t if am honest (as I think this was the first take away rather than “sit in” coffee I have had in the last 3 plus year).
I suspect one of their key target markets is a demographic that is quite eco – aware and to whom a plastic straw (if my niece is anything to go by – I sometime wonder if we will be wiped out by a virulent bamboo straw borne disease a la the Golgafrinchans in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, don’t forget to clean yours Hannah) goes down about as well as an unwashed kopi luwak bean.
Address: 28 -30 Royal Arcade, Cardiff, CF10 1AE
Tel: 02920 229441
Website: Click here
Twitter: Don’t seem to be on it.
Opening hours: Mon – Sat: 09.00 – 18.30 and Sun: 10.30 – 17.00.