A maiden cruise on Halong Bay
New French and Vietnamese restaurant opens in Eagle Rock
By Erica Wayne 10/13/2011
One of the most promising new restaurants in our area is Halong Bay on Colorado Boulevard in Eagle Rock. The concept is the brainchild of Ray Nguyen who owns Lemongrass, the Vietnamese restaurant next door. Interviewed by Dan O’Heron for his review of Lemongrass in 2008, Nguyen mentioned that he was “set to open a new restaurant next door by next summer which will serve the kinds of Vietnamese dishes that the kitchen here is too small to prepare.”
Although “next summer” turned out to be an overly-optimistic prediction of when the sister restaurant would become a reality (it opened about three months ago), it does seem to be worth the wait – especially in terms of décor and some of the fare, which is definitely upscale.
The restaurant (named after one of the most spectacular inlets in Vietnam) advertises its cuisine as “French & Vietnamese” but don’t expect either. Instead, most of Halong Bay’s dishes would seem to be the kind of refined recipes the French colonials who occupied Vietnam might have expected their Indochinese cooks to prepare.
For instance, Halong Bay has live crustaceans on the menu. Lobster is sautéed with a house sauce, dried garlic, ginger, onion and chili. Crab is prepared in a similar fashion but gets “five flavor” powder instead of the “eight different spices” specified for the lobster. Prices for both are listed as “seasonal” and presumably change with weight as well. To underline that these dishes were favored by the occupiers, they are listed by their French titles (homard and crabe). Festons (scallops), poisson (fish) and cari (curry) are also on the menu.
Halong Bay also features some wonderful salads, most named after a Vietnamese city or town. Nhatrang consists of shrimp, pork and shrimp chips over green papaya, mint and sesame seed topped with homemade tamarind fish sauce. It is spectacular. Bienhua also has shrimp and pork, this time atop pomelo, jicama, kumquat, lotus stem and sesame with tamarind fish sauce. Hoian is composed of clear noodles topped with shrimp, pork, red pepper, celery, cilantro and mint, served with a chili-lime vinaigrette. All are topped with peanuts and shallots and cost $9.
There’s a section of Halong Bay’s menu devoted to “Rice Entrees,” which includes two dishes made with filet mignon. XO bo ($15) is the most expensive dish on the menu, aside from the above-mentioned shellfish. XO sauce is a modern invention that appeared less than 30 years ago and is used as a bottled condiment in fancier Asian restaurants (a bit like A1 steak sauce). It contains dried fish and chili. In this recipe, it’s spiked with hoisin and peanuts. The chunked meat is sautéed briefly in the sauce along with green beans, cashews, basil and carrots.
The single curry (“cari”) on the menu ($11) is lovely. Marinated shrimp float in a red curry sauce blended with coconut milk seasoned with ginger, lime leaf and orange. The seafood is paired with bamboo shoots, baby corn, carrot and fried tofu. The flavor is akin to Thai panang curries, subtly spiced but with a tiny bit of fire hidden in the creamy gravy. And Mr. Ray Noodles (grilled tiger prawns over wok-fried garlic-suffused earthworm-thick noodles - $12) is simple but captivating.
There are only a few dishes that overlap with the far more conventional menu next door. For instance, you can get chicken pho ($9 at Halong Bay; $6.95 at Lemongrass) or suon nuong (grilled pork - $10 at Halong Bay; $6.95 at Lemongrass). So, if you’re seeking cheap eats, the minimalist décor and bustling atmosphere at Lemongrass, with its myriad variations of pho (soup), com (rice) and bun (noodle) dishes, should suit you just fine.
But paying an extra few bucks to dine at Halong Bay, even for pho or nuong, may be worth it just for the atmosphere. The interior is clad in dark wood throughout, with brick and parchment-hued walls to match the fancy scrolls that serve as menus. These scrolls are printed and decorated in red and black and are truly beautiful. A dark wood bar stretches along the rear wall, and the background music is jazz and gentle pop. Crisp linen, jeweled chopsticks and serving plates are garnished with gorgeous carved cucumbers, carrots and/or tomatoes.
Not everything is perfect at Halong Bay. In particular, I’ve noted forgotten or substituted ingredients in some of the dishes I’ve ordered (e.g., the “roasted” pork in a spring roll seemed more like ham; water chestnuts appeared unexpectedly in the cari; and green beans were missing from the XO bo). The jasmine-ginger iced tea ($4), which on first try had a pronounced and pleasant ginger kick, was nondescript the next time I had it.
More important, when we ordered Mr. Ray noodles for a second time, the grilled shrimp, so tender and moist in our initial order, were extremely overdone. They were tough, dry and a major disappointment since we had become addicted to the dish at first bite and were expecting perfection. Additionally, our Hoian salad came minus glass noodles, a prime ingredient, and peanuts. (PS, it was still delicious!)
Most of these lapses are minor and, I’m sure with time, will work themselves out. After all, Halong Bay’s just a baby. But somebody should be paying more attention in the kitchen. The restaurant’s recipes are, for the most part, complex, delicate and multifaceted. Perhaps the overlords of Indochine cut their cooks some slack; but I expect Halong Bay to live up to its promise.