Although a little spent after an 8-hour hike to Garibaldi Lake, a spectacular experience in the nature and a great staminal challenge, Ang and I felt quite accomplished. We decided to reward ourselves with a good meal and I suggested to check out House Special, a trendy new eatery in Yaletown specializing in modern Vietnamese fare, which has created quite a buzz in the city.
We found ourselves sitting by the front window, joined by our friend GT. This is a perfect spot for a full view of the 50-seat dining room, with a sizeable full bar in the centre that boasts a great selection of local brews and several Vietnamese-inspired cocktails. Through the open kitchen, we could see Chef Patrick Do dispatching the orders. Outside the window, there is the 20-seat patio, chic but casual, furnished with long wooden tables and white metal chairs. But the most attractive feature on the patio is the collection of retro light fixtures and red lanterns hanging down from the glass roof, bringing a warm and welcoming ambiance to the outdoor space of the restaurant.
I chuckled along with my buddies when I saw Saigon in 60 Seconds ($11) on the cocktail menu. Tasty or not, the drink’s cheeky reference to the famous auto-theft flick had already lightened my heart, and I just had to get it. The cocktail features tequila, cassis, salted lime and bitters, and carries a a perfect balance of sweetness, and acidity with a strong presence of tequila. The cocktail later turned out to be a perfect pairing with the Uncle Hing’s Chicken Wings ($12). On the wings, the heat from the chili and the sweet-and-sour flavour of the glaze that I could taste soy sauce, sugar, fish sauce and lemon grass, all sing well the the citrusy tequila drink. This Wing-Cocktail match reminds me of my experience at Ba Bar in Seattle with the same wings and cocktail affair, but the wings here are much less of a sodium attack. The extra chopped cilantro on top of the wings definitely helped too.
GT’s Plum Smuggler ($10) is light and refreshing with plum wine, cassis, martini dry and egg white. It is interesting to see egg white foam has become so popular in cocktail making these days in the city. I certainly enjoy the foam for its fluffy texture on top of the liquid, a little something extra for the playful sensation on the palate. Meanwhile I found the Green Papaya Salad ($12) a great companion for this cocktail with its fresh and vibrant ingredients: shredded green papaya, peanut, avocado and basil, along with some bright flavours from pickled carrot, sambal chili and sweet soya, and topped off with Asian beef jerky sprinkled in the salad like bacon bits. Although I found very little sauce in this salad, which could be a bit dry eaten on its own, it went well with a fruity cocktails like the Plum Smuggler.
I found the next dish pairing well with beer: the Hi Phong Squid ($10) with deep-fried drunken calamari, pickles and slaw. Very similar to the calamari served at most restaurants, this dish is inspired by the street food in Vietnam but it is much lighter on the breading. Although I could barely taste the ‘drunken’ in the squid, the combination of the flavours from different components was exciting. The colourful presentation was also consistent with the other dishes. We ordered a couple beers: the Saison Four Winds ($6), which was light, crisp and slightly floral, and the Bourbon Blood Orange ($6) from Bridge Brewery, which was also clean tasting with more pronounced floral and citrus notes.
One of the highlights of the evening was the Tamarind Duck ($19), featuring pan seared duck breast, greens and a tamarind reduction. It is a simple but also a technical dish, and a piece of perfectly seared duck breast is definitely the key. And the perfection was achieved on the duck, with the skin flawlessly rendered down to a beautiful thin crispy layer, and the meat still slightly pink in the middle, moist and juicy – just another example of letting the high quality ingredients speak for themselves with minimal but effective execution.
My favourite dish of the evening is the Coconut Shrimp Cakes ($8), another dish from their ‘Street Food’ section. The coconut flavoured rice cakes are made with traditional cast-iron pan, and stuffed with finely chopped dried shrimp and pork, and with a n??c ch?m drizzle on the side, which is a dipping sauce made of sweet chili, vinegar and fish sauce. The sweet and savoury taste combination, the slightly chewy and glutenous texture of the rice cake, the refreshing contrast from cucumber and basil, and the a little kick from the chilli sauce, all together formed a wonderful sensation in my mouth, taking me an extra few minutes to savour it. They might have called it street food, but it is such a refined and tasty dish.
Overall, House Special’s well designed menu has a good number of dishes but does not look overly complicated. The cooking is inspired on traditional Vietnamese fare and elevated with small refined details. I cant’ help comparing House Special to another newly opened Vietnamese restaurant in the city, Ahn and Chi, where the approach is to focus on fine-tuning the family style dishes and staying true to the traditions, whereas House Special has embraced the local restaurant culture a bit more by offering smaller tasting pates with modern techniques and hip presentation. Tonight, the Tamarind Duck and the Coconut Shrimp Cake were among the great dishes that will be remembered for a long time. And I would like to come back to taste their interpretation of the classics such as pho and spring rolls.
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