Before I left Ireland in 2004 I heard great reports about a new Vietnamese restaurant in Dublin’s Temple Bar. As it happened, the Boyfriend and I were hoping to visit Vietnam while either journeying to or from New Zealand but this never happened. Since my return, the regular mentions of in the cookbooks, magazines and websites that I read have piqued my interest so I jumped at the chance to take the Boyfriend to dinner in Hô Sen last night.
The restaurant is right behind the Central Bank, in what was the wonderful but short-lived Panem restaurant (fortunately their cross-Liffey Panem café still continues to produce the most wonderful coffee, chocolate-stuffed brioche and filled focaccia breads at 21 Lower Ormond Quay). A freezing cold night at our backs made us glad to arrive at the welcoming restaurant and we were glad to settle ourselves indoors at a table simply dressed with both chopsticks and western cutlery, wine glasses and paper napkins. We were even happier with the large bowl of prawn crackers and Nuoc Cham, Vietnamese dipping sauce, that was on the table for us to nibble as we perused the menu. And there was a plenty for the perusal – 16 starters, salads and soups headed up an extensive menu that also included two dozen mains along with a selection of side dishes, rice and noodles.
A couple of glasses of iced water arrived on the table as we browsed – an appreciated gesture – and, when the waiter saw that we hadn’t quite made up our minds, he took our drink order and left us to decide without pressure. Having loved the Huia Vineyard Gewürztraminer that we had with our Indochine meal in Christchurch, we went straight for the Kendermanns Gewürztraminer from Germany on the wine menu. It was a pleasant but unremarkable wine – we would have been better off with a few bottles from the boxes of Tiger Beer that were arriving out to a large neighbouring birthday party.
A shared starter of Goi Cuon, fresh rice paper rolls of shrimp, pork and rice noodles with garlic, chives, mint and lettuce, introduced us to some of the flavours of this cuisine. The four little rolls wrapped in translucent rice paper sat on the plate – but not for long – were light and zesty, the perfect antidote to a winter-time diet of soups and Indian curries.My Bahn Xeo, described on the menu as a country pancake of rice flour, was much more substantial than I had expected. This thick crispy pancake was stuffed with an intensely savoury mixture of beanshoots, shrimp, pork and shallots and came with more of the garlicy Nuoc Cham dipping sauce. Our waiter, who, as it turned out, is co-owner and manager Tuan Nguyen, had seen me eating one of the sliced chillies that garnished the Goi Cuon so he thoughtfully brought me some sliced chilli and a delicious sweet chilli sauce so I could adjust my own heat levels. On the side I had an order of Gia Xao, a fresh Chinese-style wok fried beansprouts, spring onions, carrots and mushrooms.The Boyfriend, meanwhile was tucking into what was surely the dish of the evening – Ca Kko To, clay pot-braised fish with cane sugar, pork marinade, ginger, lemongrass and Vietnamese herbs and spices. The fish, described as the waiter as a cross between cod and monkfish, was an unfamiliar one called (I think) tellapia. It was tender and meaty, the flesh infused with a deeply rich caramel and fish sauce that tasted so good that the Boyfriend started supping it directly from the serving dish.As our orders arrived, we got a few lessons in Vietnamese eating from Tuan. He first pointed out that the custom in Vietnam was to put the dishes in the centre of the table to share (like I was going to let the Boyfriend get away with eating the Ca Kko To by himself!) and then he explained how we should eat the fish and the dish of steamed rice that we had ordered to accompany it. Using a spoon, he took a piece of the fish and some sauce, picked up some rice on the same spoon, then held it to my mouth. Although I was temped to ask Tuan to sit at the table and just feed me for the rest of the evening, I resisted and got back to my chopsticks. Keeping him at our table might have been easier than feeding myself as, for some reason, the sticks kept sliding through my butter-fingers and they had to be replaced by an ever-helpful Tuan several times during the meal.After all that variety of flavours and textures, we couldn’t even look at the desert menu and we were happy to finish off with a glass of port each and a superb espresso for me. Between Tuan’s attention and the wonderfully bold and different food that filled our table, I forgot the cold Irish night outside and my fellow Dublin diners inside, taken away on a raft of lemongrass, Thai basil and ginger to the heat and hospitality of Vietnam. More delicate than Chinese food and more subtle than the best of Thai cuisine, my introduction to Vietnamese cooking – and to Hô Sen – was a resounding success. We will definitely be back, and we won’t be alone.Dinner cost an eminently reasonable €70 for a shared starter, two main courses, a vegetable side dish, a bowl of steamed rice and a bottle of wine. Hô Sen is at 6 Cope Street, Temple Bar, Dublin 2. Phone: 01 6718181 Fax: 01 6718181.