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The Hanoi Bike Shop

The Hanoi Bike Shop

8 Ruthven Lane, Byres Road,

0141 334 7165

Price Rating: 1

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Savour every flavour

Review published on 17/12/2012 © Sunday Herald

When you’re sitting in the upper floor of the Hanoi Bike Shop, it feels a bit like being in Vietnam. Moodily lit by silken lanterns in louche shades of carmine, magenta and amber, and with disembodied parts of sturdy, well-travelled Ho Chi Minh-era bikes strewn around, it would make a convincing set for Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.

This restaurant reminds me of Pho Hoa Pasteur, the perennially popular noodle shop in Saigon, where you walk up rickety stairs and feast on steaming bowls of savoury broth, seasoned to suit your taste with pungent condiments, and served in a cloud of vibrant green herbs. Or that venerable Hanoi institution Cha Ca La Vong, where just one dish – cha ca (roasted fish) – is served in one of Hanoi’s oldest establishment in one of its most ancient streets, whose name translates as “the street of roasted fish”.

The proprietors of the Hanoi Bike Shop obviously know what proper Viet food is like and are up to the job of reproducing it. This isn’t a further helping of the usual hopeless “fusion” muddle, but a very respectable attempt at authenticity.

One bite of the smoky grilled minced beef wrapped in bitter, almost medicinal betel leaf was enough to convince me that the owners know what genuine Vietnamese food is, and are committed to offering as honest a rendition of it as is humanly possible. This initial impression was instantly reinforced by the Banh Xeo, literally “sizzling cake”, named for the sound made when the rice and coconut batter is poured into the pan. This Viet street food is a crusty, coconut milk pancake, filled with pork, prawns and crunchy beansprouts. Here the home-cooked, tender, moist meat was noticeably fresh and succulent, the batter was just as it ought to be, and the peripherals were spot-on: crunchy hearts of little gem lettuce, and a highly competent nuoc cham, Vietnam’s staple dipping sauce that deftly combines fish sauce, water, sugar, lime juice, minced chilies and garlic to palate-thrilling effect.

Hanoi Bike Shop even serves cha ca, a conscientious attempt to honour the real thing with succulent chunks of turmeric- marinated coley, served with dill and crushed peanuts – but minus the customary ambient rice noodles. Why the noodles don’t appear, I don’t know. Maybe cold noodles would get the thumbs-down in damp, chilly Scotland. Still, the fish itself was good.

The hardest nut to crack in the Viet repertoire is pho, aromatic noodle soup, the broth for which is brewed up using a butcher’s scrapyard of bones and off-cuts. It’s hard to achieve the 3D character of the giant bubbling stock pots of Indochina, but once again, our spicy version in the style favoured in the imperial city of Hue, flavoured with lemongrass and chilli, was a faithful effort, accompanied by diligently home-made extras, such as sinus-clearing chilli oil.

Hanoi Bike Shop seems to take its ingredients seriously, it buys well, and stays clear of labour-saving shortcuts. It’s not just a one-trip dash to the Chinese cash and carry to load up on tins, bottles and freezer packs. Our peanut and chilli dip (sot lac) was fresh and homemade, and the pickled carrot and daikon (white radish) salad was just what you need to balance the high tone flavours. Very rarely does a non-Asian chef truly master the skills needed for wok cooking, but our wok-fried mustard greens with minced garlic and light dressing were positively memorable, the sort of food that refreshes your tastebuds and makes you feel better for a healthy burst of chlorophyll. And there are seasonal ingredients on the menu, such as partridge, given a Vietnamese treatment, so the cooking isn’t bogged down in imitation or stifling culinary orthodoxy.

Hanoi Bike Shop is a tonic. The food’s great, and the canteen setting is fun. At lunchtime, you can try out the French colonial option of banh mi, Viet ingredients served inside a baguette, but then there are so many other good things to share when you visit this invigorating addition to Glasgow’s eating out scene.

Cycle thriller

Review published on 29/10/2012 © Sunday Herald

The coriander, in fact too many of the green herbs, are a bit tired and droopy-looking tonight. Strange. And the music was, briefly, way too loud. There’s clearly also nobody on the premises who hails from anywhere near Hanoi or Vietnam. And, darn it, they don’t even sell bikes. In fact, the only bike in the whole place seems to be the unicycle that was hanging so low over our table that I asked if we could move.

Do we hate the place then? Nope. Not at all. They do have bike wheels dangling from the ceiling. There are man tools on the walls, pots of chilli oil on the table and, despite the fact this is really just a west end theme restaurant, we likey. Quite a lot. And why? Well, here at The Herald we only score atmosphere up to a max of five. And sometimes that’s not enough.

From the warm, low lighting, the corrugated-iron bar area and the kitschy accessories to the young and enthusiastic staff, there’s definitely a little buzz about this place. And somebody, somewhere in here, has been to Vietnam. I know this because I asked one of the waitresses. And somebody, somewhere, knows that the bicycle is currently the hottest thing on planet Earth to men of a certain age. I worked that out for myself. And somebody has put the two together in a lets-make-money way.

I know all this, and I still like it. So do Luca and Debs, although – and let’s be upfront about this – the food, while at times good, is just a bit too hit-or-miss. Spring rolls came thick, fat and crisp on the outside with a handmade feel and more than enough flavour inside to lift them, so simple yet good that we ordered a second helping. The mustard greens had little discs of golden garlic dotted around, which boosted the dish’s seasoned, salty flavour. Summer rolls, in soft translucent wrapping and stuffed with wood ear mushroom, omelette, prawn, mint coriander and noodles, turn out to be cold but a light and refreshing thrill: different, in a good way.

On to that charred mackerel with pickled cucumber, black sesame seed and tiger prawn salad then? Ordered from the brown paper menu high on the wall, this should be a stand-out winner: Scottish fish – although past the coastal season – with exotic flavours. It almost works. The first few forkfuls are great. A bit under-charred though in bits and, more alarmingly, far, far too many large bones lurk in what should be a fillet.

That slow-braised pork shoulder with lemongrass, chilli, mustard greens and bean sprouts? This is where things start to go decidedly un-Vietnamese. Instead of bish-bosh, fresh Vietnamese street flavours, it’s muted, dull and ordinary. That pho? That famous broth the whole restaurant is kinda based around? Unique, scintillating, different? Not really. We have it with chicken leg and it’s disappointingly bland. An almost tasteless, watery gloop containing occasionally fibrous chunks of leg and strangely lukewarm noodles. Of course, there’s fish sauce, fabulous Thai srirarcha chilli sauce and chilli oil, on the table to spice it all up, and coriander, spring onion, chilli and basil on the side. Did I mention the coriander and basil here looked limp and tired? Surprising when the freshness of the herbs should be paramount. It’s all a bit disappointing. A marinated chicken kebab with lime leaves is damp rather than moist and again surprisingly muted in its flavours.

However, a dessert of lemongrass tart is lovely, the homemade vanilla ice cream very good and a garnish of sliced orange with lemon and mint one of the few things in the meal that really hits those high flavour notes.

OK, so the kitchen has been sloppy at times tonight and the dishes patchy but, as I said before, we’ve enjoyed it. It’s not real Vietnamese. In fact, the bill will say we’re in somewhere called Stravaigin 2 – surely some mistake – but it is good fun.