I’m ashamed to admit that I went to this restaurant on the recommendation of a guest. That should, after all, be my job. They had just returned and were raving about the flavours and were surprised that we hadn’t been there. So was I. We soon remedied that, and at the next opportune moment we went to Hai Cafe for dinner.
Firstly, the name Cafe is a little bit of an understatement. I had images of a small coffee shop with five or six tables and three staff. I was wrong. To be fair I should have known better, this is Vietnam after all. Hai Cafe is actually three cafes/restaurants in one. There is an entrance to it from the two parallel roads, and you would be forgiven for thinking it was two different places if you never walked all the way through. If you enter the cafe from the side nearest the river, you enter into the more coffee shop-like area. This is a nice area and I would have happily sat here for dinner as there are plenty of tables and it is has a light open feel.
Luckily, we carried on walking through the restaurant just to see what else there was. The next room, although part of the restaurant, feels a bit more like a Chinese art gallery or temple than a place for eating. There are tables, but I would imagine that these would be the last to be filled.
The place to be, though, in my humble opinion, is through the next door, and the part that can be accessed from the far road–the courtyard. As son as I walked into the open area of the courtyard I knew I had found the place I wanted to have dinner. It is a quite wonderful little open air courtyard with lots of plants and nice lighting. It gave me a kind of Mediterranean feel, which I always like. Of, course it would not be the best place to be if it were raining, but when the weather is kind, it is a lovely place to sit. I already told my mom that I will bring her here when she comes next.
The drinks menu is standard fare for most restaurants in Old Town and follows roughly the same pricing structure, i.e. 40,000 for a Larue beer. Two things stood out for me though as I was looking at their drinks list. 1. They have an extensive wine list. The list is quite impressive, although a little bit on the expensive side. The only thing I didn’t like about the wine list, was that the only red that they had on the menu that you could buy by the glass, was a Pinot Noir, and it’s not my favourite. Especially at 150,000 VND per glass. They might have had more if I had asked, but I didn’t because I noticed the second thing: 2. They have gin for 55,000 VND. Sure, it’s for the Gordon’s, but as the tonic is probably going to be Schweppes anyway, I am perfectly happy with a Gordon’s gin and tonic, especially at that price. It was pretty good too.
As this is a barbecue restaurant, the food, of course, is the most important thing. It really is a barbecue as well. Not one of these pretend barbecues, where they go and grill your food in the kitchen, the food is cooked out in the open, in the courtyard itself. Like a barbecue. You can literally see your food being barbecued by the staff.
As this is a barbecue restaurant, with the food being cooked on an outside barbecue, the menu follows suit and offers a range of barbecued meat dishes. The hard part is choosing what to order. We ordered the mixed meat skewers, pork ribs, and pork belly fried rice. Each of the meat dishes comes with a choice of side dish and we opted for the noodle salad with the skewers, and the vegetable kebab with the ribs. We weren’t sure whether we really needed the fried rice or not, but we went for it anyway. And I’m glad we did. Firstly, the dishes themselves aren’t that big, so I think two dishes is not really enough for two hungry people. And secondly the pork fried rice was delicious. I think I can now class it as the best fried rice I have had in Vietnam so far. I am not always a fan of the way they make fried rice in Vietnam, as they like to crisp the rice in the bottom of the pan, but this wasn’t like that at all. To be fair, though, it wasn’t the rice that made this so good. It was the pork belly. Whatever rub they use on the pork is out of this world. The flavours were just fantastic, and I would be happy to go back just for those tastes again.
This seems to be ongoing theme in Hai cafe: The meats themselves are good, but nothing out of the ordinary. They are barbecued meats. But whatever rubs, marinades, sauces and dips they use are simply divine and are anything BUT ordinary. It is the flavours that would make me recommend this place to guests every time, and I mostly certainly will. Maybe not to vegetarians, but if someone likes their meat, and they like it bursting with flavour, then this is the place I will send them. Even if you could not see them cook the food on the barbecue, you would know it had been barbecued. You can literally taste the barbecue, and I don’t mean that in an Uncle Bob’s charcoal nugget kind of way. If you like barbecued food, then you will love this place.
It is not a cheap place, though, that has to be said, and if you are hungry and like wine you will burn through a fair amount of money. Our bill for the three dishes, a gin and tonic, a margarita, and two beers came to about 900,000 VND, so it’s certainly not cheap. But I have to say, if you can afford it, it’s worth it, especially if you like meat. And even more so if you like barbecued meat, as it’s difficult to find a place that does it this well.
I will certainly be back, and I already have my eye on the beef brisket. With a side order of pork belly fried rice of course.