New Restaurant Report - HANOI HOUSE (14th & U NW, DC)
Continuing our quest to eat at, and write about, every new restaurant in DC, we recently visited Hanoi House, DC’s newest Vietnamese spot.
Upon entering Hanoi House, one is instantly ensconced in a thick, intriguing ambiance, somewhat of a luxury Vietnamese speakeasy. The long rectangular dining area is dark, steamy, and bathed in a red glow. Soft whispers of crispy fried dough, fresh cilantro, and inviting chili peppers caress us as we are led to our booth, which is raised slightly off the wooden floor.
Our waitress instantly pops over to the table. She is extremely friendly and offers up a few suggestions of a few of her favorite dishes as we peruse the menu. The menu, itself, offers plenty of options without appearing overwhelming: a few classic Vietnamese appetizers, such as spring rolls stuffed with shrimp or tofu and green papaya salad, banh mi sandwiches, fried rice, and of course, pho. The drink menu is more exotic, witch cocktails comprised of specialty liquors, tropical fruits, and a variety of spices and herbs.
Everything looks great and we decide to over-order. Goi Cuon Chay (vegetarian garden roll with crispy tofu and a plum dipping sauce) for starters, followed by banh mi two ways (Thit Ga with chicken and Thit Chay with fried tofu for the two of us veggies). For the main course we opt for chicken Com Chien (fried rice, green peas, garlic, onion, carrots, fish sauce, and cilantro) and the vegetarian Pho Chay (Vietnamese noodle soup). I can’t help but try the Gold Star cocktail, packed with mango, nutmeg, pineapple, lemon, and pisco.
Siting in the steamy room (yes, my glasses actually fogged up), we chat about how beautiful and relaxing the restaurant is. It is sexy while demure, pulling off the ever sought after allure many restaurants (and women) can only dream of. I happily sip my mango pisco, which has the perfect balance of sweet and savory (I’m not a huge fan of sweet cocktails and was a little nervous about this one before I tried it), and anticipate the food.
The meal arrives quickly, with all the plates coming out at once. We soon realize we have ordered a mountain of food for just three people. We dig in. The spring rolls are a nice start, filled with fresh aromatic veggies and herbs and wrapped in a light rice paper shell. We move on to the banh mi. The sandwich itself is rather large and the baguette crunchy, but it is lacking character. The fried tofu filling is alright, as is the chicken according our resident meat eater, but the filling is missing the spice, acidity, and crunch I tend to associate with a great banh mi. In other words, while the banh mi is definitely edible, it pales in comparison to some other local offerings (I suggest making the trip out to Eden Center in Falls Church and popping into Song Que Deli, where you can get a killer banh mi--meat or veg--for under $5). The fried rice is also large and tasty, but nothing special. The vegetarian pho is interesting, incorporating flavors I don’t typically associate with pho (it has mushrooms and bamboo and the broth is semi-sweet, reminiscent of a ramen or udon). It lacks cilantro and is not accompanied by a chili sauce nor a plum sauce, which is somewhat of a disappointment. That said, it has a nice subtle flavor.
We pack up some leftovers and fork over for the bill--the damage is a mere $55 the whole meal (four main dishes, an appetizer, and one cocktail). On our way out we discuss the pros and cons. We all agree that the best thing Hanoi House has going for it is atmosphere--it’s the kind of place you just want to lounge around and drink cocktails in for hours. The food is good, but it’s not great, and you can definitely find better Vietnamese in DC or in the suburbs. However, the portions are all ample, which translates into value. The conclusion? While Hanoi House is perhaps a better spot for pre or post dinner drinks than for actual dinner itself, especially considering nearby competition, it still manages to offer an enjoyable experience at a reasonable price.