Sitting in the sunshine, underneath hanging vines in the courtyard of a beautiful colonial building is a wonderful way to enjoy a pleasant lunch on a serene late-spring afternoon, and so it was at Cousins, a modern European restaurant tucked away in a quiet alley just off To Ngoc Van street in Hanoi’s much-loved Tay Ho district.
Whether sitting inside or out, Cousins exudes a quiet calmness that makes it one of the more relaxed and genteel restaurants you are likely to find in city. Perhaps it is the slightly hidden location, or the fact there’s no loud music, but lounging in this bistro-come-restaurant is instantly relaxing and you will find yourself wanting to while a few hours drinking wine, such is the comforting ambiance here.
The cliché of a restaurant being attentive but not intrusive is particularly well-worn, but it can be a difficult line to straddle and few do it so effortlessly as Cousins, the staff being well-trained, professional, friendly and, importantly, smiling.
The restaurant, so named as it was the creation of two cousins, has been open six years, though only about a year in its current location.
There are many restaurants with superb décor and location but where the food does not quite hit the mark. Cousins is certainly not one of those, and it is fair to say that it is impossible to have a bad meal here, given the standards as well as the level of choice on offer.
On Chào’s most recent visit we ate the crusted duck pate (140,000 VND), spinach and chorizo gnocchi (240,000 VND), tuna salad (230,000 VND), wood-grilled Australian steak (330,000 VND), an asparagus and goat cheese salad (160,000), as well as an exquisite cheesecake. To say they did not put a foot wrong food-wise would be an understatement. Everything was superb and we oohed-and-ahhed at every bite, blown-away by the show-stopping quality of each and every dish.
When Chào, impressed by her food, told her she was a genius, she blushed slightly and said it was mostly down to her staff.
The pate was made with duck, pork and mushroom and came in a thick crust alongside pickles and a tangy gherkin-butter to cut through its slight saltiness. The steak was a masterpiece of hearty comfort food, grilled on wood sourced from Ha Giang, coming with a soft jacket potato and a thick chive sour-cream.
The tuna was perfectly seared coming with a fragrant coriander sauce, and the gnocchi was layered in so many different pitch-perfect flavors, our photographer was literally swooning. This is not just a great European restaurant in Asia; this would be a great European restaurant in Europe.
Chef Meriem Pellet, also from France, has been in the business for 20-odd years, including three at Cousins, and is unusually humble for such a talented chef. When Chào, impressed by her food, told her she was a genius, she blushed slightly and said it was mostly down to her staff.
The drink here selection is superb too, offering a wide selction of craft beer, ciders, digestifs and wines, as well as smoothies, fruit juices, coffees and teas for those of a less alcoholic-bent.
Easy-going French manager Tibo Wallax provides the charm front-of-house and is happy to take patrons through the very varied menu, which takes in French, Spanish and Italian cuisine among others, and plays a key role in maintaining the restaurant’s unfussy, laidback atmosphere. “We always wanted it to be calm here, so we planted lots of trees outside,” he says.
The restaurant is co-managed by the garrulous Huong Nguyen who boldly told us she did not much care for western food. But nevertheless she maintains an intense passion for the restaurant, telling us about its focus on sustainability, locally-sourced ingredients and a recent move by the restaurant to using dried-grass straws so as to minimize plastic waste.
“We are like a family here, and we always want to make our customers happy,” Huong says. “So we always pay a lot of attention to everybody that eats here and make sure we can help out with any requests. Customers being happy is very important to us.”
Despite being French owned and influenced strongly by continental cuisine, the restaurant is not pretentious and serves up an excellent selection of English classics such as bangers and mash, fish and chips, and a sticky toffee pudding. They even do a gourmet hamburger, so rest assured that while food snobbery is not a thing here, excellent quality surely is.
It is easy to throw down superlatives, but Cousins really is one of the best European dining experiences you are likely to have in Hanoi. Visit here once and you will surely visit again and again. Recommended.
No 15, Lane 45 To Ngoc Van, Tay Ho
+84 123 867 0098
11 a.m.-10 p.m.