While there is a sprinkling of Asian restaurants across the city, the Vietnamese offerings are far and few between. Hoi An, the star restaurant of Shangri-La in Dubai, is discreet in location, appearance and mood, tucked away on the first floor that overlooks the lobby. With dim lantern-style lighting warming the small dining space with burnt orange walls, wood latticework ceilings and dark brown furnishings, the ambiance is immediately intimate and cosy. It is made even more so by the fact that, unlike the facing restaurant Shang Palace and adjacent bar, the view is relegated to the other tables. Hoi An is gently requesting that all eyes focus inwards and on the food.
Service is succinct and efficient – the Vietnamese staff explains to newbies and the familiar alike the flavours of each of the dishes with their Vietnamese names in accessible means, focusing on the main note. Characterised by a combination of five fundamental tastes and a notably crisp, vegetal take on dining, each dish offers a nuanced version of vegetables, lemongrass and ginger, bird’s eye chili, Thai basil leaves, and the strong-smelling but flavour-inducing fish sauce, but because it is still a hotel outlet, the token assortment of decidedly non-Vietnamese offerings also pops up, such as lobster. This is a place though – as seen by the packed venue on a Tuesday night – where going authentic is the best route.
The menu is copious and details, offering individual platters, suggestions, as well as an assortment of set menus, to help guide diners on a brief but compact culinary journey. To start with Gỏi cuốn tôm gà is a gentle first foray and likely the most accessible to unfamiliar palettes. Organic chicken and shrimp is wrapped in a thin rice paper roll with vermicelli, mint, coriander and fish sauce – a fresh and healthy introduction to a meal that will soon take a more impactful turn. Focusing on seafood, the second starter Mực nướng, is a chargrilled cuttlefish with baby shiso, coriander, calamansi and chili sauce, which introduces a bit of spice. The crispy coconut prawns, Tôm chiên giòn, a crunchy bite of well cooked crustacean, comes playfully in a rice basket and tropical fruit salsa, and a sweet dipping sauce that speaks to uninformed visions of Vietnamese food. Sweetness is prevalent in the cuisine so those who prefer a little bit of a sweet kick to their dishes ought to consider Hoi An. The star dish however, and perhaps the best measure of any restaurant claiming Vietnamese authenticity, is the Phở bò Việt Nam. With a delicious, flavour-packed broth, this traditional Vietnamese soup typically consumed for breakfast with herbs and leaf vegetables combines beef tenderloin, chili and noodles in a deep bowl. It is served with an assortment of side sauces – hoisin, sriracha, fish sauce – but the pho needs little more than a squeeze of lime. While JLT’s Vietnamese restaurant may have the leg up on desserts, Hoi An is worth a visit for the pho alone.
The main dishes, Cá nướng lá sen, oven-baked striped sea bream with galangal, kumquat, coriander, mint and Thai basil, along with Việt Nam Ga Cà ri, Vietnamese-style red chicken curry with coconut milk, chili and basil, are tasty but lack the freshness of the starters. The fish is a key dish for those keen on local flavours, our sever informs us, and the galangal and kumquat experience makes for a pleasant take on seafood that can’t be found elsewhere in the city, while the chicken is a rich, luscious curry sauce that delivers notes of coconut and spice.
Yet while the dishes resonate with the tip of the tongue – including dessert, which dances around mango and coconut as the pudding takes on a more end-of-meal friendly soup format – our server playfully notes there is a less sweet side to Vietnamese cuisine, literally. Outlining the finer details of Kopi Luwak, we learn that the pricey coffee-cum-delicacy, is a brew that includes the partly digested coffee cherries eaten and passed by the Asian palm civet, which offers the bean a unique fermentation and flavour. Unavailable in Dubai, our server laughs, adding, “But for that you have to go to Vietnam.”
Shangri-La Dubai, Sheikh Zayed Road
7pm - 12midnight (Mon - Sun)
12.30pm - 4pm (Fri & Sat)