Hai Luke Tran takes his Hanoi 3 Seasons concept up a notch at the new incarnation in Leslieville.
HANOI 3 SEASONS (1135 Queen East, at Larchmount, 416-469-3010) Other location: 588 Gerrard East, at Broadview, 416-463-9940. Complete dinners for $30 per person (lunches $20), including all taxes, tip and a glass of house wine. Average main $9/$8. Open Tuesday to Sunday for lunch noon to 3 pm, dinner 6 to 11 pm. Closed Monday, holidays. Licensed. Access: short bump at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN
Hai Luke Tran must have horseshoes up the wazoo.
Four years ago, the former Bay Street money manager opened Hanoi 3 Seasons in low-rent Chinatown East. Against all odds, Tran's slightly upscale North Vietnamese eatery struck gold, winning both critical raves and full houses.
His modest boîte on Gerrard proved so successful that a second Seasons has just launched in trendy Leslieville. If an early lunch last Tuesday is any indication, Tran's latest venture looks to make an even bigger splash. Open two weeks, the seafood-friendly joint's already packed to the gills.
"It's even crazier at dinner," says the super-convivial Tran. "There are lineups every night!"
Regulars at the original will recognize the menu, since it's exactly the same and still executed by Tran's sister-in-law and 84-year-old mother. But the new room's a definite step upmarket and reveals its earlier incarnation as Tran's chic Southeast Asian antique shop, all temple benches and intricately carved screens. Norah Jones and Carla Bruni croon over the hubbub of animated conversation. We like. A lot.
We're also gaga over the grub. A pair of tasty deep-fried rice paper-wrapped spring rolls stuffed with minced sausage are plated with delicate calamari fritters laced with dill (Cha Gio Cha Muc). A minty and generously portioned salad of shredded lotus root arrives heaped with fresh coriander and steamed shrimp (Nom Ngo Sen, both $5).
A dozen and a half meaty green New Zealand mussels on the shell beautifully steamed in a fragrant lemongrass broth kicked with fiery satay paste (So Hap Gung Xa Ot, $8) cry out for some crusty French bread to sop up all that intoxicating liquor.
And Hanoi's spicy baby clams (Hen, $7) - the dish that made Hanoi 3 Seasons a dining destination in the first place - are just as explosive as we remember, sautéed with green chilies and scooped up with crisp black-sesame rice crackers. At these prices, who cares if the clams come from a tin?
Mains are also sized to share. A large bowl of slippery rice noodles gets topped with nuggets of boneless chicken thigh in a sweet teriyaki-esque sauce (Ga Nuong Xa Sua Dua, $9.50), dressed with chopped lettuce, toasted peanuts and mint and optionally sided with garlicky bok choy ($5) and a fried egg ($1).
Best of the bunch and the only item on the card that breaks into two digits, grilled grouper, kissed with dill and finely chopped chilies, luxuriates on a bed of vermicelli tossed with pho fixin's (Cha Ca La Vong, $11).
Not everything's perfect. The beer (Budweiser or Canadian, $3) and wine (red or white, $5 glass) selections are seriously lacking, and the thermostat needs to be cranked to a level approaching room temperature. Easy fixes all. Still, Tran wouldn't have it any other way.
"I'm so lucky," laughs Tran. "I'm my own boss and I get to be creative every day, although my mother wishes I wore a suit and carried a briefcase."