THERE ARE VERY few high-end Vietnamese restaurants in this city, and Ha Long Bay strives to fill the void with its elegant, chic room and high-quality offerings. For the most part, it succeeds.
A large painting of Vietnam’s gorgeous Ha Long Bay on the west wall sets the tone — and brings together the colours — of the room. Think: oranges and whites, greys and baby blues.
A dark grey ceiling contrasts with a room-length white banquette, their shades echoed in the stonework at the back. Elsewhere, there are orange paint panels, mismatched chandeliers (albeit classy) and comfortable leather chairs pulled up to black marble tabletops.
The menu focuses on the fuss-free — appetizers, noodle soups, vermicelli, rice and specialties, with almost all main options hovering around the $10 mark. Rolls in various permutations (spring, fall and winter) make up half of the appetizers.
Fall rolls ($5) see rice paper pulled tight around four warm bundles of jicama, lettuce, herbs, dried shrimp, egg and Asian sausage — savoury and addictive little morsels the consistency of cured meat. A small bowl of smooth, salty peanut sauce and a little pile of shredded iceberg lettuce, pickled carrots, cucumber and daikon round out the quartet.
Green rice grains act as a batter for three plump, piping-hot black tiger shrimp ($5.50) spooning together on a jade-green plate. The freshness of the crustaceans and expert deep-frying make this a winner.
From six spins on vermicelli comes bun thit nuong cha gio ($9.50), a dish that doesn’t live up to the gratification of other plates sampled.
A slapdash of somewhat dry grilled pork bites repose over a mound of rice noodles encircled by a toss of the same ’slawlike salad served with fall rolls. A pinchful of peanuts and a greaseless chicken spring roll sit on the plate’s edge, and a bowl of sauce made of citrus, fish sauce and sugar is for dumping or dunking. The freshness of the assembly’s ingredients can’t make up for the lackluster flavours.
Beef stew, on the other hand, sates both comfort seekers and picky palates. The most tender of braised beef shank cubes bob about in a thin, summer-appropriate broth also home to soft carrot chunks, ginger, sliced scallions, purple onion shavings, ginger and lemon grass. A teensy ramekin of lime, salt and pepper caters to DIY seasoners.
Our smiling server, though attentive and friendly, suffers from interruptivitis. But the restaurant does succeed in pairing an urban flair and high-quality cuisine with a style of cuisine too long associated with the cheap and cheerful.
HA LONG BAY
525 Eglinton Ave.W.,
Dinner for two, excluding tax, tip and alcohol, $40