Architecturally, the restaurant is a perfect example of the turn-of-the-19th-century Hanoian townhouse. The stark white and black interior is illuminated by Chinese verses providing a warm feel; its monotone palette leavened by the comforting feeling of worn antique furniture, which evokes a nostalgic buzz in even the most cynical of visitors.
It’s Not About Luxury
Chim Sao carries a scruffy artsy style well. It hosts artist gatherings and its wall provides space for some challenging modern art. The restaurant can range from the serene to the downright deafening. Its huge glass window frames giant bottles of rice-wine-pickled-geckos (that seem to have been there for at least six years). On the ground floor, high tables with black wooden furniture stand stiffly at attention, while a more relaxed but equally uncomfortable traditional Vietnamese bed serves as a dining platform, accommodating four seated foreigners at a push.
Second floor seating is entirely floor based, so beware if you suffer from creaky joints. If the food wasn’t to my liking, I would have given up on this place a long time ago. The low tables are equally uncomfortable to eat from. You must have a good reach and be prepared to stretch a little, yet the décor and ambience combined with some of the best food I can lay a chopstick on in Hanoi nullifies the genuine discomfort.
Service sometimes leaves a lot to be desired — the traditionally costumed post-teens seem more interested in flirting with each other than taking an order. But despite my litany of complaints, I genuinely look forward to a meal at Chim Sao. Its secret? Fresh and simple ingredients executed seamlessly time after time.
A Sausage Fest
I opt for the misnamed “ethnic minority sausage” sourced from the north of the country. Coarsely ground pork sausage (100 percent free of ethnic minority people!) pearled with fat, and then fried, certainly isn’t healthy. But combined with the addition of the eye-watering chilli sauce, it becomes a thing of beauty. Oily pork juice, crisped skin crunch and eye-jangling chilli contrast with the sharp mint and coriander herb side serving.
If this isn’t enough porcine pleasure, a serving of wood-dried pork, slightly fibrous pink goblets infused with a tantalising whiff of wood smoke does the trick (VND70,000). As a counterbalance to the fattiness of the pork, a banana flower salad — tricked out with chilli, mint, shredded carrots, peanuts and coriander — adds a sweet, hot technicolour option (VND45,000). Another must-try is the garlic-fried beef. It’s served with a hearty dollop of saffron-hued mustard (VND65,000) and, again, is simple food executed well.
If meat isn’t your thing, the fried tofu in tomato sauce (VND35,000) makes an ideal accompaniment to grilled perch, which although boney, is cooked to perfection and provides a pleasant disparity between crispy skin and milky flesh.
Chim Sao isn’t exactly a safe-haven for those squeamish over blood and guts, but, to be fair, at least the menu describes what offal it is you might be sampling next. The only non-hit of the night, the pig’s intestines served with sauerkraut, bizarrely tops the bill at VND75,000. Other recommendations are the black chicken hotpot — a dish that is only bettered by some of the vendors over on Tong Duy Tan.
Chim Sao, 65 Ngo Hue, Hai Ba Trung