The small entrance on the second floor of Nikko Hotel Hanoi with jade Noren curtain offers a glimpse into a seemingly humble Japanese restaurant. But behind that entrance is the most authentic destination for Japanese food in Hanoi. Benkay Restaurant was once a temple of Japanese cuisine in Hanoi, famous for delicacies such as house-made soba noodle, exotic sushi, and premium Kobe beef – back when Japanese food was a novelty. As soon as I had set foot onto the lobby of the restaurant, I could feel the quintessential Japanese ambiance, from the calmness mixed with soft murmur of Japanese customers to the space designed in minimalist style, airy but still allows privacy thanks to the traditional panel screens.
The menu at Benkay will overwhelm you at first glance. Firstly due to the price tag, and secondly due to the wide array of premium and exotic choices that could hardly be found outside of Japan. Suimono soup and the Kaiseki set for example. To try these two dishes, one would have to spend four times the money of a meal at a mid-range restaurant.
Suimono was served in a cute porcelain teapot. The soup was crystal clear, offering glimpses of the ingredients – shrimp, meat, herbs, and two slices of the famous matsutake mushroom, touted as among the most expensive foods in the world. This is a very delicate and interesting dish. I could only detect a hint of matsutake mushroom after putting a few drops of lime juice into the soup. Although that was a new experience, it was quite a steep price to pay for a regular meal.
Kaiseki can be understood as Japanese multi-course fine dining. A meal in Kaiseki style is quite complex with many small components and served in individual servings. All the dishes were brought out simultaneously, with bowls of different shapes and colors, creating a full table that mimics a feast of the ancient world. In a Kaiseki, attention is paid as much to the details of the dishes and the color combination of the food as the taste of the food. The snow white tofu in a small bowl looked like a piece of silk floating in the wind, coupled with touches of bright patterns and a delicate piece of edible gold. The whole dish bear a metaphor of an aristocratic lady wearing a golden brooch. The shiny black lacquer bowl contained crystal clear broth, displaying a piece of chinese cabbage and plump clam. The whole sight was as picturesque as a lake in the moonlight. The chefwas no longer just cooking, he was creating poetry with his presentation. My favorite dishes in the kaiseki were: Gomadofu (tofu made from sesame), soy wrapped in seaweed Tempura, and Hamachi sashimi with seaweed salad. In true delicate Japanese fashion, each dish carries a driving flavor creating an astounding balance: creaminess and bitterness (gomadofu), fattiness and crispiness (tempura), and crunchiness and sourness (Hamachi).
Another highlight of the resturant was uni sashimi. Not present in the regular menu, only available for special requests. Even if I had to personally ask the chef and wait a whole hour, this dish would still be worth it. Not many things in life could offer such level of pleasure. The serving size was small but so satisfying. The taste was a cross between foie gras and bone marrow. It melted as soon as it hit the palate, leaving an unctious creamy taste and umani lingering inside the mouth. Uni sashimi from Hokkaido is actually a gift for anyone who loves the taste of nature.
Aside from high-end choices, Benkay also offered affordable lunch sets. My companion wanted to explore this aspect after I’ve splurged on the fancy dishes. Much expectation was placed upon the sushi set and soba noodle. I felt slightly let down to learn that the chefs at Benkay stopped making soba noodle in house, but I was not disappointed. The set was quite filling, comprises of a bowl of soba noodle, a small disk containing tempura flakes, along with pieces of nigiri neatly placed on classic wooden tray, simple and very “Japanese”. The soba was delicious: al dente, apparent buckwheat flavor, the restaurant also offers green tea soba in the menu. The fish on the nigiri were all fresh. Ikura still whole and plump, slowly pops at each bite. Hamachi was fatty and crunchy. Tuna was bright red, flavorful, and lean. I was only disappointed by the salmon, this was farmed salmon with high fat content.
The meal at Benkay could not have been much better, this deserves to be the best Japanese restaurant in Hanoi. However, the service bared some hiccups: limited wifi for guest of the hotel. Benkay has a separate area for guests with special requests for formal lunch meetings. You can also do barbeque hotpot here for casual meals or go for a high end set menu when you’re feeling fancy.