by Malcolm Jolley
After the mixed results of our Steeles Avenue Sichuan adventure, I thought I’d play it safe for my next lunch with Laura Calder, my friend, the James Beard Award-winning author and TV host. Hanoi 3 Seasons is the slightly puzzling name of a modest looking restaurant at the beginning of Gerrard Street’s Chinatown East strip. I discovered it a few years ago on my way to a bowl of pho at Mimi’s. An amazing waft of wok-fried fish came out of an open window on a sunny summer day and the scent lured me in for what was to be the first of many servings of cha ca la vong.
I should say that my “discovery” was entirely personal. Hanoi 3 Seasons had been praised everywhere from The Globe to CBC Radio and all the other usual suspects long before I found it. Recently, it has expanded into another location in Leslieville. Their price point is a little bit higher than the average pho bar, and their specialties are those of North Vietnam, including their house specialty cha ca la vong, which is a wok-fried grouper with turmeric and dill. I’ve never had anything quite like it, and I figured Ms. Calder, who is Maritimes transplant to Toronto by way (famously) of France, might enjoy it or at least be intrigued by the interesting mix of spice and herb.
The restaurant was busy and we settled into two-top table in the middle of the room when we arrived. Hanoi 3 Seasons is somewhat unusual because the kitchen is more or less in the dining room behind what was a bar in the space’s previous incarnations. There, an older Vietnamese woman handles a number of shallow pans and woks for anyone to see, should they pay attention. The decor otherwise is not remarkable, though it’s clean and pleasant enough. The menu is short, made up of mostly derivatives of bun (rice noodle dishes) or soups. One item of interest and deliciousness is a shrimp soup flavoured with tamarind, which manages to be sweet, sour and spicy all at once in the complex and sophisticated way that Asian flavours fuse and bring roundness to the mouth.
But we were not at Hanoi 3 Seasons for soup, so we quickly ordered two of cha ca la vong, a couple cold bottles of Saigon “bia” and some appetisers. The cold beer refreshed perfectly, and we settled into some chit chat, including some details of Laura’s upcoming (third) cookbook to be published by HarperCollins in September. This one, entitled Dinner Chez Moi: The Fine Art of Feeding Friends, is more personal than her first two, and is a collection of recipes and stories gathered from her friends and family. As always, her work encourages us all to relax and enjoy eating, cooking and being with the people we like and love.
To be begin we are served a salad roll. It’s my habit to order the cold, rice paper wrapped salad roll as a kind of penance for ordering cha gio, the deep fried “egg roll” like appetisers that I truly really want to eat. The salad roll at Hanoi 3 Seasons is perfectly serviceable – crunchy and herbal with fresh and firm little shrimp, but my attention was immediately diverted by the sizzling hot cha gio and another fried starter that Laura had noticed and wisely ordered: octopus balls.
I’ll be perfectly clear: octopus balls do not refer to any part of a gastropod’s anatomy. They are, rather, minced and battered little balls of crunchy goodness seasoned with turmeric and dill. The flavours are, naturally, similar to Cha Ca La Vong, which I will describe shortly, but the texture of the golden nuggets is fantastic – their is a bit of rubbery (in a good way) chew and bounce to them, once you crunch through the rice flour batter. Dipped in the ubiquitous sweet and sour nuoc mam pha, with a little added chili for bite, the octopus balls went down fast. So too did the cha gio, which at Hanoi 3 Seasons are made with taro root as well as shrimp and pork and noodles. The taro offers sweetness and soft texture which, again, contrasts so well with the crunchy rice paper exterior. So far so good.
Cha ca la vong is a Hanoi specialty, where (the internet tells me) there is in fact a Cha Ca street, the term meaning fried or grilled fish. Of the restaurants serving fried fish in this way, the most famous is Cha Ca La Vong, which has lent it’s name to the dish generally – at least this is what I surmise. The dish begins with bun, rice vermicelli, over which are laid fried pieces of fish made golden yellow from turmeric and rice flour batter, over which are pan-hot onion and scallion as well as fresh dill leaves, beside which are garnishes of lettuce, cilantro, shredded carrot and peanuts. Dressed with goodly amount of nuoc mam pha and a squeeze of lime, it can all be mixed together to make a kind of fried fish, noodle salad – if the fish is not devoured immediately upon being served. Turmeric and dill, it turns out, is not just visibly pleasing but also a wonderfully balanced flavour combination: the earthy spice is brightened by the fresh green herb. The fish was perfectly cooked, moist under it’s firm shell of batter, which did not go soggy, Laura remarked, at any time – the last morsel as crisp as the first. Conversation was paused as we devoured our bowls and I was pleased and relieved the lunch was a success and worthy sustenance on which to plan the next adventure…
Hanoi 3 Seasons is at 588 Gerrard Street East: www.hanoi3seasons.com.