Halong Bay is a clever bit of restaurant-as-theater. The room’s high ceilings are shrouded in dark-painted timbers; it looks like there is an intriguing story—in both senses of the word—above the heads of diners. Large, cheesy paintings are offset by tasteful flowers and sensuous china. The menu is an actual scroll, and you get custom-made chopsticks to eat with; the dishes are presented with a flourish and elaborate garnishes. The atmosphere is relaxed and quiet, and the restaurant seems to exude both the red of cinnabar and burgundy wine, the two sides of Vietnamese cuisine. One section is titled “at the chateau” and features Vietnamese dishes with a French twist; the rest of the menu comprises rice entrees, salads and rolls.
Most of the dishes are Vietnamese, and though there are egg rolls and pho, this is not a typical Vietnamese café menu. There’s not a banh mi or pork belly in sight. You will find more unusual dishes that incorporate honey, jicama, pineapple, a variety of veggies, and banana leaf. Beautifully plated with fancy carved veggies, this is uptown Ho Chi Minh City.
As befits a restaurant named after a water feature, Halong Bay has plenty of fish and shrimp on the menu, and live crab and lobster in season. I had the “poisson,” which is a fish-and-mushroom mixture steamed in a banana leaf, melt-in-your-mouth tender, mildly fishy and wholly delicious. My friend tried XO Bo, filet mignon satueed in hoisin. The meat was much more tender (of course) than the typical stir-fried beef dish, and the intense, sweet, deep flavors penetrated the small pieces of meat. We started by splitting an order of spring rolls (the Halong Bay Roll, wrapped in rice paper and crunchy inside with pork, carrot and cucumber), and I’m glad we did. If I have a quibble it’s the fact that there are no sides available, just rolls, salads and plates. Family-style eating would be possible for a larger party, but I’d like a couple of small dishes of cooked vegetables to augment the richness of the entrees. But I’ll return to Halong Bay to savor the atmosphere of mystery and panache. I’ll just order my own plate of spring rolls.
Halong Bay, 1948 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock, 323.258.2618, halongbayrestaurant.com. Beer & wine. Appetizers $6-$8, salads $8-$9, entrees $9-$15.