Restaurants specialising in Vietnamese cuisine are pretty scarce in the Emirates, especially when it comes to fine-dining establishments. Hoi An at Abu Dhabi’s Shangri La hotel is an exception, tucked away on the lower level of this sprawling property, it’s perfectly suited for one of Asia’s leading hotel brands.
Named after a historical trading port on Vietnam’s central coast. Hoi An as a restaurant tries to replicate the cultural impact of this world heritage site, inside a dining room that appears somewhat colonial. Ornate wooden carved doors and screens bring a sense of the Far East into the heart of Abu Dhabi, as wooden ceiling fans whir overhead. A colour palette of vibrant yellow offers much appeal (though plays havoc on our food photography skills throughout the meal), as do the knick-knacks presented on a long wooden mantel, with the ceramic opium pipes of particular note.
We’ve actually had the pleasure of visiting the town of Hoi An and have fond memories of this popular backpackers haunt. An ancient town characterised by a picturesque covered bridge spanning a small river that leads visitors into a warren of small pedestrianised streets. It’s a popular place for having clothes and shoes tailor made and is perhaps more recognisable for the paper lanterns that adorn the shop fronts and old buildings in the centre of town.
These colourful lanterns cover the ceiling of the Abu Dhabi restaurant and help add to the authenticity of the ambience and while understandably our post-Iftar dining slot meant no music, the lack of background noise did detract somewhat from the overall experience. The menu describes Hoi An’s food as ‘authentic creations with a modern twist’ but we found the food (with the exception of the desserts) to stick firmly to traditional territory. This is by no means a bad thing as the focus lies firmly on the fragrant Asian flavours for which Vietnamese cuisine is known.
Having fallen in love with Pho (the traditional Vietnamese noodle soup) on a rainy morning in Hanoi over a decade ago, we’ve long searched for a recreation of the dish. The search has often proved futile but Hoi An serves up one of the best versions we’ve had outside of Vietnam, embodying a rich and bold broth. We would’ve preferred the meat a little rarer but the flavours manage to impress.
We order the Crispy Seafood Rolls, expecting similarities to a spring roll but end up with something more akin to a potato croquet. Stuffed with crab meat, shrimp, onions and mushrooms, it’s a good dish but one that is somewhat lacking in the traditional Asian flavours we’d expected. Perhaps we should’ve been more adventurous and ordered the Grilled Cuttlefish Satay (next time).
Moving onto main courses, we opt for the signature Bò áp chảo (sizzling beef tenderloin). Serving marinated beef on a sizzling hot plate amidst garlic and soft onion. The meat is tender, beautifully seasoned and hints at both a richness and sweet element. It’s easy to see why this has become one of the most popular dishes on the Hoi An menu, plus the accompanying portion of fried sweet potatoes are certainly moreish.
Our dining partner selects the Cá tuyết nướng (grilled cod), a plate similar in concept to Japanese Miso. Offering a sweet marinade for the delicate fish, sitting proudly on top of a spiced pumpkin puree and decorated with sautéed pak choy and asparagus. While many would associate the Pho with the cuisine of Vietnam, our fondest memories are of pak choy. We briefly recall sitting at the base of the cable car leading up to the Perfume Pagoda in Northern Vietnam and dining on these wok fried greens amongst early morning mist. Food is emotive and the feeling of nostalgia brought back by such a simple plate speaks volumes to the authenticity of the food being prepared here.
Asian desserts have often been hit and miss for us. The flavours and textures of items such as taro or tapioca are somewhat of an acquired taste, so we skip the Sago Pearls (pumpkin, taro, black mushroom and yam) knowing it’s probably not for us. The Mango & Sticky Rice seems a sensible choice but we’re soon diverted to the Kem Soai Nuoc Cốt (chilled mango soup). A concoction of coconut milk and freshly sliced mango presented as a cold soup and topped with a sensational coconut ice cream. It’s a lighter way to end the meal and is alive with the sweetness from the tropical fruits.
We also try the Molten Dark Chocolate Lava Cake with its stewed strawberry sauce. A good option for those skewed to more ‘Western’ tastes but one that unfortunately doesn’t rank with the best we’ve had.
The restaurant space itself may not be quite as impressive and grandeur as we’ve come to expect from the Shangri La brand, but this is part of Hoi An’s charms and our only real concerns came from the service side. We found the staff to be somewhat disengaged with us as diners, making little eye contact and haphazardly placing the dishes as they were served. With Ramadan being a busy time, it’s easy to sympathise with the strain put on the service from a popular Iftar that precedes the current dining hours at Hoi An. What we don’t expect though, is to be ignored and treated like somewhat of a hinderance. Shangri La describe their service style as “Shangri-La Hospitality from a caring family” but unfortunately the unique characteristics associated with Asian hospitality, seem to have gone awry when we dine.
Hoi An does a good job of recreating the traditional village feeling of rural Vietnam and a decade on from our travels in the region, the dining expereince manages to bring back memories of the coastal waters of Halong Bay, the vegetable terraces of Dalat and the busy streets of Ho Chi Min City.
We were invited to dine at Hoi An. All views are our own and all photographs are Out & About UAE. Cover image used courtesy of Shangri La Abu Dhabi.