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The Sea Shell by Nu Eatery, Hoi An

The term “hidden gem” is often overused in travel books and blogs and restaurant guides, but if ever there were a restaurant that deserved to be called it, it is the Sea Shell by Nu Eatery. Situated in a small alley off the street that is accessed by crossing the Japanese covered bridge, you would be forgiven for thinking that this small restaurant would never be found. The street over the bridge seems to get significantly less footfall than the roads before the bridge, and yet this well-hidden two-storey house-restaurant always seems to be packed to the rafters.

The first time we tried to eat here, we failed, simply because there was a queue of people waiting to get inside. Even when we finally did get a table on a subsequent visit, it was still very busy. I can only presume it is in a guidebook somewhere, because I can’t imagine it could be this popular through random passers-by alone. But once you know about it, you need to go, because you will be well rewarded.

The restaurant was, I’m guessing, once a small two-storey house that has been converted into a restaurant. Downstairs is an open-plan kitchen that you walk past to go to the toilet, and a small room with several tables. Upstairs I guess there are more tables, but we didn’t get to see it as they were so busy.

We ate downstairs, and it was a lovely intimate experience, with almost the feeling like you are eating in someone’s house, but without the raging anxiety that imposing on someone else would bring with it. It is a nice spot, but in this case, it is not the ambience that makes this restaurant stand out–it is the food.

The Drinks

Before we can get to the food, though, I have to discuss the drinks. Not just because it is the usual format that I write these reviews with, although to be fair I AM a stickler for routine, but also because the drinks are noteworthy in their own right. Why are they noteworthy? Well, mostly because they have glasses of decent red wine from 90,000 VND. The 90,000 VND glass is a merlot, but I didn’t try that because for a piffling 5,000 VND extra I could get a rather tasty glass of Cabernet Sauvignon-Carmenere. So why wouldn’t I get one? Well actually I didn’t, because I ended up getting two.

The Larue was only 30,000 VND, but I wasn’t going to get that when the wine was only 95,000 VND, and I still stand by my decision.

The Food

This is where The Sea Shell by Nu Eatery really shines. I’m not entirely sure how I should characterise this restaurant, but if I had to, I would say that it is like Vietnamese-inspired Tapas. That’s really the feeling I got when we were ordering. It is not a huge menu, but diverse enough to keep things interesting. We ordered several things and they mostly came one after each other like they were different courses. Luckily, most of the things come in sets of two so you can share and don’t have to fight over them.

The first thing we ordered was the pork belly steamed buns, as Phuong had heard they were good. She wasn’t wrong. The flavours in these things are phenomenal. I think one day I will go back and just order a portion of each of their steamed buns (they have 4) because they are so good. In fact, while we were there, the table behind us did just that: They ordered a table full of steamed buns. And it looked glorious.

The bun itself is so light and is a wonderful contrast to the flavoursome meaty goodness of the filling. This was a very good start to the meal. And only 40,000 VND. What a bargain.

A single steamed bun. There should be two, but, you know…

The next things we ordered were two soft taco dishes. We got one portion of the barbecue pork taco with wasabi dressing, and one portion of the turmeric white fish with white noodle taco. Again there were two of each so we each got to try one. These didn’t disappoint and were a strong follow-up to the steamed buns. I still can’t decide which I liked best, as they were both delicious. Part of me wants to say the fish because the batter was so light and crispy and they just look amazing. But who doesn’t like barbecue pulled pork tacos? Let’s just call it a draw.

Barbecued pork taco
Turmeric fish taco

Both of the tacos were a measly 60,000 VND each, so not too taxing on the budget so far.

The next dish we ordered was a plate of garlic baguette toasts topped with chili lime shrimp, followed by an avocado and prawn salad. Both were wonderful dishes to share. Very fresh and tangy and tasty. The salad was good as salads go, but salads never really get my socks popping, so I have to admit I kind of wished I had ordered more tacos. I couldn’t stop thinking about them. I realised I started to miss the fish more than the pork, so I guess that won the duel after all. The prawn garlic toasts were good though, and could stand on their own with any dish.

That said, next time I go, the steamed buns and tacos will be the only nailed on certainties to my order. After all, I have to give room to try something else. The garlic toast with pork meatballs for example. I still for the life of me can’t figure out why I didn’t order that the first time. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly wouldn’t be disappointed to eat exactly the same dishes again next time. They were all very tasty indeed. I would just feel like I was missing out on some other great possibilities. This is the problem.

Overall, then, apart from being extremely high-quality food with exceptional flavours and textures, the main joy, for me, of eating at the Sea Shell by Nu Eatery is being able to try so many different dishes and share them, even if there is only two of you. You don’t need a big group to get many different flavours. The dishes are small enough and cheap enough to allow you to fill your table with a multitude of different dishes and still have enough money left for wine.

And enough room in your belly for dessert.

Yup, of course we did. Why wouldn’t we?

We ordered a cheesecake and a cinnamon roll. The cheesecake was fantastic, and although the cinnamon pastry was wonderfully cinnamon-y, the white sauce over the top was a touch too sweet for me. That said, we still finished them both completely. They were a lovely end to a quite wonderful array of courses.

All-in-all, the total bill came to around 900,000 VND or so, for two people with wine. Of course, it’s not all about the cost, but the cost being low for each dish does make it easier to just order many things to try. Trust me, there are a lot of things that you are going to want to try, and being able to order them one after the other like tapas is fantastic. The hardest part is deciding what things you are NOT going to try.

The Sea Shell by Nu Eatery is a wonderful place to eat, and if you like trying different things, and you like the idea of Vietnamese inspired tapas, then you will absolutely love this place.

I will be back for sure. For that table-full of steamed buns if for nothing else.


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