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A new chapter in my (foodie) life

By RICARDO PAMINTUAN Published Apr 25, 2024 5:00 am

Hanoi—Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, French lawyer and politician, and author of Physiologie du Goût (The Physiology of Taste), said this while reflecting on the craft and science of cookery and the art of eating.

I’m about to tell you what my family ate, as my wife and I recently celebrated our anniversary in Chapter Dining and Grill. It’s up to you to tell me what we are, but I think we’re basically adventurous omnivores who are willing to try ordinary food prepared in extraordinary ways.

This Michelin-star restaurant located in the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter offers Vietnamese contemporary dining with a focus on the charcoal-grill technique. Chapter’s website boasts that they take diners “through a culinary journey of textures.”

Our evening jaunt through narrow roads teeming with street hawkers and motorcycles reinforced the notion that eating should be a multisensory experience. In fact, the moment you enter Chapter’s premises, the aroma from the kitchen will make you salivate and wish for a quick fix. Alas, haste is simply not a thing in a place known for its storytelling tasting menus.

Our menu called “Back Home” was presented in artistic fashion using a traditional painting style. Postcards of the food lineup were equally attractive but didn’t describe the cuisine at all—they did tell stories that may or may not be connected with each dish.

Family Reunion: A two-part appetizer of razor clams with herb sauce and pork terrine on attractive skewers, followed by crispy noodles and rolled pho.

We started off with Family Reunion, a two-part appetizer comprising snacks of razor clams with herb sauce and pork terrine skewered on attractive toothpicks worth bringing home as souvenirs, followed by crispy noodles and rolled pho.

It was a good start and made us eager to try the mains. From a reunion, we went Duck Catching. Together with the starters, this dish of raw blood pudding called tiết canh served with duck meat, foie gras, and beetroot paired well with a shot of homemade green rice wine, which is similar to Korean makgeolli. All our drinks, however, were non-alcoholic, though there’s an option for stronger libation.

Shrimp Trapping traps you in a wonderful combination of red shrimp, lime caviar, and fish sauce sitting in a crispy wonton crust. Each bite was a taste of Vietnam heaven.

Banh Mi presented like an hors d’oeuvre of crispy pork fat bread with smoked eel and fermented chili

Next, we went River Fishing for hamachi (young yellowtail) and enjoyed a strip of sashimi complemented by bamboo and caviar and the ubiquitous “secret sauce.” Both dishes were delightful to the eyes and tongue and didn’t have that “taste of the ocean” that turns some people off, especially with a chaser of Lichun Kombucha (a cocktail of pear, daisy, and kumquat) after each bite.

Our reservation was for 6:30. Within the hour that followed, as more customers came in, our food’s arrival began to slow down. The waiting game was made more tolerable by our view from the second floor, if you can call the street a view to behold. With balconies and terraces aplenty in the Old Quarter, people-watching could be a favorite pastime among locals and tourists alike.

Amberella Picking: An ant-salt sherbet

A New Pink mocktail of pomelo, strawberry, and grapefruit accompanied our next two dishes. The first, Straw Burning, was an Iberico giả cầy, a North Vietnamese braised dish where meat is marinated with galangal, lemongrass, and topped with fermented mắm tôm shrimp paste, then eaten in a rolled perilla leaf. The other dish bore the familiar name of Banh Mi but was of a completely unrecognizable kind, presented like an hors d’oeuvre of crispy pork fat bread with smoked eel and fermented chili.

Ambarella Picking may look like slim pickings, although a persnickety eater may want to skip to the next course. The ambarella fruit is also called golden apples or Jew plums. For Chapter’s purposes, it was turned into a zesty pedestal for a few pieces of spicy ant salt—that’s real red ants, hot and salty—on top of a scoop of lemon sherbet. Talk about bold and adventurous!

Holiday Vietnamese Terrine: A H’mong black chicken dish with mèn mén and green mustard leaves

The next half of our tasting menu kicked off with another kombucha called The Backyard, I suppose because the ingredients of starfruit, apple, and ginger can literally be picked from one’s backyard. It paired off nicely with Holiday Vietnamese Terrine, a beautifully plated H’mong black chicken dish with mèn mén and green mustard leaves. Mèn mén (steamed minced corn) is both a traditional dish and a special part of the culture of the Mông ethnic group in the northern province of Hà Giang.

The next dish, a crab noodles/luffa/caviar concoction called Gifts from Hai Phong, was simply divine, with the powerful flavor of crabs permeating every delectable bite.

Gifts from Hai Phong: Crab noodles, luffa and caviar

Grandma’s Braised Fish Pot wasn’t exactly served in a pot, but being a relative of the Chilean sea bass or gindara, this slice of tooth fish on a bed of green banana and soybean sauce with a side of radish and shredded seaweed rolled as easily in the mouth and went down smoothly down to the stomach that was beginning to fill up in spite of the conservative, nearly carb-free servings.

Not to be outdone was the no-frills, perfectly rare steak called Nuôi Em Journey, with seared baby carrot and spicy sauce. It’s Wagyu steak, enough said. Both mains went well with the second mocktail known as Dreamer, a combination of Butterfly Pea flower, apricot, and honey.

Nuôi Em Journey: Perfectly rare Wagyu steak

As our feast commenced with two appetizers, it concluded with a couple of desserts: The Gac Fruit Pergola, a bowl of Gac fruit (a member of the melon and cucumber family whose insides resemble a bloody mangosteen), with green rice mochi, gong cai, and barley; and The Gathering, a plate of petits fours (French for “small oven”), consisting of green tea cookie, gummy, and pistachio macaron, making it “more like a trio,” quipped my son. These two palate cleansers were served with a cup of Thunder Horse red tea.

The Gathering: Petits fours consisting of green tea cookies, gummies, and pistachio macarons

Before the end of the full course, Chef Truong Quang Dung, manager director of Chapter, personally made a round of the tables to get a sense of customer satisfaction. I couldn’t lie to this young, talented man. I had to tell him that my family immensely enjoyed his creations and how I wished we had this kind of food in Manila. Who knows? Maybe he’ll decide to expand after he finally makes a long-delayed visit to the Philippines.

For now, if you happen to be in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, I strongly urge you to try the tasting menu of Chapter. Make sure to book a table in advance as the restaurant is almost always full.

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Chapter Dining and Grill is located at 12C P. Chân Cầm, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam.