Saturday #81: Beware of Food Porn

Saturday #81 found me in Hanoi with my sister Karen and brother-in-law Al. We were scheduled to fly to Siem Reap (Cambodia) on Sunday so this was to be our last night in a city that we had each come to love. There was unanimous agreement that we should do something special for dinner.

I hadn’t done much research before arriving in Hanoi in the belief that it’s often best to just play it by ear when you have plenty of time to explore a city. I’m a firm believer that spontaneity breeds the best adventures. 

One of the very few things I did know about food in Hanoi is that Anthony Bourdain raved about a Hanoi restaurant called Com Nieu in his 2001 book A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal. I read the book last summer while traveling the Silk Road. I don’t recall if Bourdain ever found the ‘perfect’ meal, much less at Com Nieu, but I remember him describing it as a crowded, noisy and rough-around-the-edges restaurant, presided over by the owner, Madame Ngoc, who barked orders at the staff but made sure every patron left happy and full.

The other thing that Bourdain described in detail was the waiters’ habit of smashing clay pots on the floor and throwing the contents – sticky rice – from one end of the room to the other. I normally avoid restaurants that are “all show” or who owe their popularity to some shtick like rice tossing, but Com Nieu sounded like it was different. According to Bourdain, the place is packed seven nights a week with local families who practically live at the place. There’s something to be said for a restaurant that keeps hard working locals coming back for more rather than relying on one-off visits from platinum card-flashing tourists.

I discussed the the pros and cons of Com Nieu with my sister and brother-in-law and we agreed that despite some ho-hum reviews on Trip Advisor, we’d give it a go. If no less a culinary authority than Anthony Bourdain had raved about it, how could you go wrong?

Oh, you can, my friend. You can go very wrong, and we did with Com Nieu.

It’s obvious in hindsight, but why didn’t we just admit that the world has changed since Bourdain’s book came out in 2001? Would Com Nieu be the same after all these years? The simple answer is no. Com Nieu is no longer hidden and it’s no longer a gem. 

For starters, Madame Ngoc has pulled a George Jefferson and moved on up to the east side. Once a crowded, raucous joint in a working class neighbourhood where shellfish was dumped directly on the table and you had laundry to do when you got home, Com Nieu is now located in an upscale neighbourhood near several embassies with a clientele consisting mostly of well dressed expats and tourists. Gone are the picnic tables with plastic tablecloths, the chalkboard menu, the 1930s era cash register, and the 40 cent pints of “fresh” Vietnamese beer.  

In short, Com Nieu has gone Hollywood. The publicity generated by a whole chapter in Bourdain’s book and later segments on his Travel Channel and CNN shows have sealed its fate. Madame Ngoc has sold out. She now presides over a modern, clean and bustling multi-room restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating, a quiet second level lounge, and a water feature. Yes, a water feature. How HGTV, circa 2005 can you get?

I knew we were in trouble when we got out of the tuk tuk at the curb and noticed three very pretty girls standing around the hostess station. They were studying a laminated seating chart as if they’d just been handed the flight manual to a Boeing 747 and told to land it on runway 36-D. They were lost. Shapely, but lost.

Once they figured out which of the 20 open tables to seat us at, we ordered two Tiger beers and a glass of Chardonnay. The drinks came quickly and were cold. The waiter had to be coaxed back to the table to open the beer bottles – they weren’t twist-off or pull-tabs as in most of Asia – but he eventually found a bottle opener and did the honours.

The menu at Com Nieu runs about 50 pages and features dozens of professionally shot photos. We arrived around 8:00 p.m. and there was no way we could read the complete menu before the joint closed at midnight. I’ve seen cookbooks with less detail!  And to top it off, the waiters hovered over our shoulders even though we repeatedly told them we’d need a few minutes. They’re well intentioned but just plain annoying!

I won’t go into great detail about what we ordered because, frankly, I’ve lost my notes and I simply cannot remember a single dish. It was that memorable! Actually I do have some photos and I remember the sticky rice, which was good, and the process of delivering it from kitchen to waiter to table was just as Bourdain had explained. (See the video link below.)

I do recall that everything was nicely presented and looked just like the photos in the menu, but it was clearly food for the masses. Bland, dumbed down, tasteless slop. Big on presentation but short on flavour. That’s Com Nieu in a nutshell.

The restaurant itself was sterile, homogenous, and totally devoid of character. Soulless, really. If Com Nieu was in Canada or America – and very little about it hinted that it wasn’t – then you’d find $50 Com Nieu gift cards at the check-out at Shoppers Drug Mart or Walgreens. Think of it as Appleby’s with an Asian twist or the Swiss Chalet of Vietnamese seafood. I’d probably give it 7 out of 10 stars if it was located in a suburban Oshawa parking lot between Home Depot and Pet Smart. But that’s the point – if I wanted dumbed down Asian food I’d be back in Oshawa or Barrie or Cambridge. (With apologies to Oshawa and Barrie and Cambridge.) 

Com Nieu wasn’t a total disaster but we could have done sooooo much better in a city chock-full of authentic dining options ranging from hawker stalls in the market to open storefront cafes with tiny tables and plastic stools spilling out onto the sidewalk to high-end dining in international hotels. In short, choosing Com Nieu was my mistake and I’m prepared to wear it. As part of my reconciliation and rehabilitation, I’ve come up with some tips to help you avoid tourist traps while traveling abroad.

Top 10 Tips For Avoiding Tourist Traps



1. Beware of Hostess Stations: I put this one at the top of the list because the hostess station will be right inside the front door and should you come upon one you’ll still have time to bolt. Hostess stations may be required for the smooth operation of a large restaurant in the developed world but is that what you’re looking for in Cambodia or Morocco or Jamaica? If you are, why not just stay home and go to Milestones on the Airport Strip?

2. Realize That Things Change: Bourdain fell in love with a 2001 version of a restaurant that now exists in name only. Recognizing that things change won’t guarantee that you avoid every tourist trap but it should spur you into doing a little more research than we did in Hanoi.

3. The Food Network Effect: If a fine dining establishment gets a Michelin star or two, it’s quite likely the chef and owner have poured their heart and soul into the business and they’ll probably do everything humanly possible to retain that star. On the other hand, when a tiny operation grossing a few hundred dollars a night gets a 30 minute segment on The Food Network and a chapter in a New York Times bestseller, the owners would be crazy NOT to move to a bigger location, jack up the prices, pack in the tourists and laugh all the way to the bank. Madame Ngoc did.

4. ‘War and Peace’ As a Menu: When the menu runs 30, 40, even 50 pages, as it does at Com Nieu, it’s very difficult for the kitchen staff to perfect everything on the menu. Some of the most memorable meals I’ve had on this trip have been at hawker stalls with no menu whatsoever or small, family-run restaurants with no more than six items listed on a chalkboard.  

5. This ain’t Paris or NYC, honey: Be prepared to check your western expectations at the door. If you’re looking for a truly memorable meal in the developing world, it won’t be anything like what you regularly get in the gastronomic capitals of the world. And it had better not be straight out of Wetaskawin or Whitby or Surrey, either.  Drink what the locals drink.  Eat whatever is harvested within 100 km of the restaurant.  Don’t order seafood in the desert.  Do try the Guinea pig in Peru.  You know the drill.

6. Celebrity Clientele: If you step inside the front door and immediately see a photo of Dog and Beth from Dog The Bounty Hunter, make like their bail-skipping prey and run for the hills. Ditto for photos of Al Gore and Madeleine Albright who had previously dined at the overrated Beijing joint that served me a plate of dry-as-dust duck bones.

7. Celebrity Owners: The only thing worse than celebrity clients (besides celebrity clients from 20 years ago) is a celebrity owner. Com Nieu has both.

8. The Restaurant Has An App: The only “apps” in an authentic locals restaurant should be bite-sized and preferably contain pork belly, shredded coconut, figs with Roquefort, or quail eggs. If the restaurant you’ve chosen for your last night in an Asian city has an app that allows you to pre-order spring rolls from your iPhone, you’re probably in the wrong place.  

9. Dyson Hand Driers: You’d have to check the bathroom for this one, and by the time you get back there it’s probably too late to (legally) dash, but a Dyson hand drier is a sure tip-off that a once authentic locals restaurant has sold out. Same thing for those fancy porcelain vessel sinks that sit on top of a granite counter. Many of best restaurants in Asia don’t have bathrooms, and if they do they’re upstairs, down a long hallway, and shared by the owner’s extended family of 27.

10. Food Porn: Do you really need to know exactly what your meal will look like before it arrives at the table? What happened to the element of surprise? Besides, if a restaurant has gone to the expense of producing a massive menu with dozens of professional photos, that expense will be built into the price you pay (and then some).

   

But wait, there’s more… While doing some research for this post I came across the origin of the term “Cook’s Tour”. I always assumed that it had something to do with cooks on old time sailing ships who would have visited many ports in search of fresh ingredients. According to Wikipedia, a cook’s tour is a British phrase meaning “a brief or cursory guide to a subject or place. Its origin is in the trips organized by Thomas Cook in the 19th century.”  See, this blog can be edumacational!

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