I was quite apprehensive about reviewing Matchbox. The original location had garnered a small but vociferous following that swore by its steaks and pasta. Also, I’d detected a decline in the reviews of the original restaurant, a problem that all restaurants can suffer from over time if due attention isn’t paid to basics such as service and ingredient quality.
The interior of the relocated Matchbox has much more pomp than the empty-feeling original had. It is a warm coloured wine-bottle cloistered cave, a look pioneered by The Vine (31A Xuan Dieu) many years ago and for some reason de rigueur in wine bars and bistros with pretentions. I’m not a great fan of being surrounded by shelves stacked with wines as it gives me the impression I’m eating in a down-market wine shop and also smacks of confusion on the part of the owners as to what the point of the establishment is — I don’t think this will ever be a busy local wine bar, but could be an ideal café-bistro for an afternoon of culture at the museum.
The décor doesn’t really reflect a quite solidly modern fusion menu with a prominent western twist either. Neither does the music for that matter; having John Denver’s greatest hits covered by an elevator music band does not an atmosphere make.
Onto the food. With one of the shiest waitresses in Hanoi whispering a greeting, we took a table on the ground floor. Menu already opened on evening meal entrees, I took a quick glance and was immediately grabbed by the Vietnamese pho carpaccio. This sounded audacious, as did the sesame seed coated Lebanese-styled labneh served in a salad with breasola, figs and oranges.
The pho carpaccio (VND70,000) exceeded expectations. It contained choice cuts of beef, and the meat absorbed all the rich flavours that would regularly be found in a street-stall cracked porcelain bowl of pho via a dense dressing drizzled across the pleasantly decorated plate. It was topped off with a surprising compliment of astringent, peppery arugula/rocket and chipped Pecorino cheese. Fantastic.
The labneh appetiser (VND70,000) didn’t fair quite so well by comparison. The labneh balls (yoghurt-based cheese simply produced via strainer and a bit of salt with the texture of cream cheese) coated in gold and black sesame seeds were delightful. But the mixed green salad dwarfed the other ingredients with barely a fig to be found, the bresaola dried beef was only passable, and the bland array of sliced orange was disappointing. Unfortunately, northern Vietnam seems to suffer a dearth of juicy, sweet, full-flavoured oranges, and instead the anaemic flavour did little but add moisture to the dish. A worthy attempt nevertheless.
After an intriguing set of appetisers, we moved onto the main course. A simple dish of spinach and ricotta ravioli with mushroom sauce resembled a soup when it arrived, the individual pasta cushions stuck to the bottom of the plate with the sauce dumped on top. This unfortunately meant the pasta had become stuck together and the sauce merely covered the top layer of the dish.
The mushroom sauce was a nice creamy, authentically fresh creation (but worryingly hot, which may have involved microwaving), but the texture was hampered by the use of domestic mushrooms which retain a distinctly nubbly bite to them even when heavily blended. In summary, flavour and portion size adequate, but presentation and texture slightly lacking (VND115,000).
As a nod in the direction of the fusion theme I went for the Norwegian salmon with almond risotto and bak choy served with a soy and ginger sauce (VND215,000). This truly spanned continents in its ambition but was ultimately slightly disappointing in practice. The salmon, ordered rare, was more of a medium when served dramatically leaning against a lamppost constructed of moulded risotto. The risotto was slightly dry and the almonds more an irritation than an additional flavour. The soy and ginger sauce, although a typically good accompaniment with bak choy, lacked in flavour making it a lightweight counter-point to the slight overly seasoned salmon.
Matchbox is close to occupying a unique position in Hanoi, inventive and surprising in terms of menu, with some really great attempts at quality food at reasonable prices. But to really develop the following, the new location deserves an overhaul in ambience and pepping up of the already friendly staff. A more aggressive marketing campaign may do wonders for this cosy eatery. I will definitely be back.
Matchbox, 40 Cao Ba Quat, Ba Dinh. Tel: 3734 3098