Slice of Japan delivers simple pleasures

On a hot, humid and seemingly grimy evening, my friend and I were excited to be heading out to a live music gig, something uncommon to Ha Noi. We decided to make a night of it and kick off proceedings with a meal out, but we needed something fast and simple.

Fast food in the capital traditionally means street food, or more recently, multinational deep-fried chicken. But on this particular evening, my friend had a couple of reasons to celebrate, so we wanted to sit down to something a little more special –something with more emphasis on the ‘food’ and less on the ‘fast’.

Acting on a word-of-mouth recommendation, we found exactly what we were looking for at Hanayuki Japanese Restaurant. Here we experienced fast and hugely amicable service, along with a calm, civilised atmosphere, enhanced by a rarely found lack of Muzak (an overwhelmingly tedious element of many restaurants), and lively conversation among the Japanese expat patrons whose presence began to prove the restaurant’s proficiency in providing authentic Japanese fare.

Slice of Japan delivers simple pleasures

Strolling down the charming foodie Mai Hac De Street, we knew we’d struck Japanese cuisine when we came to a restaurant where red paper lanterns inscribed with simple characters hung down to either side of sliding screen-doors. We were welcomed by a doorman, and a waitress showed us to one of the tables lining either side of the ground floor (there are three floors in total). The setting was fairly elegant but not over the top; chairs were comfortable, the settings, simple.

Along the walls were photographs of fresh sushi, giving some indication as to what this eatery was all about. And, towards the back of this intimate dining room was a servery, from where we could choose from a selection of fresh, clean, raw fish. “Bingo!” our taste buds cried.

The friendly and attentive yet laid-back waitresses were dressed in soft pink, silk ao dai and one of them spoke enough English to interact with us a little. However, this was not an issue, as the menu came with photos and, unusually in my experience, prices in US dollars. On opening the menu, we were a little shocked to find dishes priced above our budget, but as we flicked through, we were promptly relieved to find ample dishes available for US$2-3 (VND32,200-48,300) each.

We ordered a selection to share, and in no time, a waitress was placing plates and condiments before us, and serving us the Vietnamese tea we had asked for. We each received a small plate of Japanese potato salad as a complimentary appetizer. Our waitress went so far as to pull our chopsticks out of their packets and place them on chopstick stands, which somehow seemed like the height of opulence and decorum after the usual street-food experience of wipe-your-own-dirt-off.

Our banquet was served in a steady stream. First came our raw sushi – to my mind, the main reason for a trip to any Japanese restaurant. On the menu, we’d seen Red Clam for $3 or salmon for $5. Our waitress informed us that they were out of Red Clam, so we consulted the servery, deciding on White Fish ($4), which was super-clean. Served with a generous dollop of wasabi sauce, the thin slices of fish were fresh, ever-so-slightly chewy, cooling and slid down the back of the throat easily.

Next we were presented with Dashi Tamago (Japanese Omelette, $2) four rectangular chunks of omelette with a dash of salt, and fluffy texture yet substantially dense contents. It was best eaten with the quality soy sauce we’d been served earlier. Along, too, came our one order of sushi rolls: we’d gone for the Negi Toro Maki (Tuna Rolls, $3), with the tuna filling flavoured just enough but not too much to spoil the simple sushi concept.

The Yaki Mochi (Grilled rice cake, $2) wasn’t to my liking, but then again, I’m not into sticky rice products. The ground-rice sweet dough was too heavy and overly chewy for me, and, wrapped in dried seaweed and the dish proved tricky to handle.

After a short reprieve in the feasting came the Sanma Shio (Grilled Spanish Mackerel with Salt, $4), served whole, which had the faintest trace of sticky crispiness, a little like the outside of the dried seaweed on sushi rolls. We scoffed it down and were almost filled to capacity.

Midway through the meal I’d made a last-minute request for Gyuoza (Fried Dumpling, $2.50), just for a hit of yum-cha nostalgia. The tender parcels were filled with seasoned pork mince and came with a delightful sour dipping sauce filled with sesame seeds.

I took note of a couple of dishes that I plan to return for. Of course, in our shared grazing, we missed out on the classic soup Miso Ramen (Fried noodles with meat and shrimp, $5), and another one I imagined to be a treat was the Ebi Kuy Temaki (Prawn Handroll, $3/roll), which from the photograph looked like dried seaweed wrapped around prawns and a selection of pickled and fresh strips of vegetables.

Throughout the night, the chefs were present on the restaurant floor and, in a nice touch, one of the chefs delivered us a plate each of complimentary fresh mango, bursting with ripeness. Meanwhile, the waitresses kept our desired tea coming at a steady rate throughout the meal.

After a satisfyingly Japanese dining experience in a quiet oasis, we were cleansed, revived and ready to take on a sticky, smoggy night out. At Hanayuki, we had no fuss, no hassles, plenty of smiles and pleasant vibes. Our relatively short time at the restaurant was all about simple pleasures and… food. Cheers to that.

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