This is why the reopening of somewhat tired Ha Long into the new and groovy Sen is very exciting. Not because I have anything against mirrored walls and buckets of chopsticks, but because it is great to have choice. Now if you want a classier Vietnamese experience, there's no need to jam the doors at Sapa Hills.
Sen is different because the decor is understated and modern and the menus are a pleasure to hold and browse. The staff wear a smart pink uniform and there are no TVs. According to Billy, it was bought out by the chef of Ha Long, so one hopes that because this person has had experience in the restaurant, they knew what they wanted to change.
Banh hoi chao tom ("Sugar cane prawns with fine rice vermicelli), $12
Well, change not this, chef - it is unreal!! Banh hoi or "fine rice vermicelli" are little "mats" of very thin rice vermicelli noodles prepared somewhat like Sri Lankan stringhoppers in that they are formed by pressing through a sort of mincer and then steamed. They are traditionally hard to make so are a celebration food. Also here is chao tom or sugarcane prawns, a thick paste made of prawns and other seasonings, formed around sugarcane and grilled. It is so tasty and the sugarcane infuses it with a touch of sweetness.
To eat, take a noodle mat, some sugarcane prawn meat and vegies and wrap in lettuce a la spring rolls. Dip in the seasoned fish sauce - swoon-a-licious!
Bun moc ("Vietnamese rice vermicelli soup, Northern style"), $9
The rest of the menu has a northern Vietnamese bent, evidenced in this bun moc or pork meatball soup. Deb highly recommends the bun moc at Dinh Sonh in Little Saigon Market. Like at Dong Ba, you take the plate of lettuce, bean sprouts and red cabbage and tip into the hot broth. This ups the vegetable ante and gives a lovely fresh vegetable angle to the meal that pho sometimes lacks. The broth here was tasty, clear and refreshing, while the meatballs were yummy little flavour bombs of pounded pork mince and earthy black fungus.
Bun cha Ha Noi ("Rice vermicelli with Hanoian style grilled pork"), $12
Another Northern dish, grilled pork belly and pork meatballs as a DIY salad with vegies and vermicelli noodles. Just load up your bowl, tip over the thin, tangy dressing and dig in. I loved the thick, rich, dark soy marinade on the pork. This was quite good - I'm not sure a match for Sapa Hills' epic version but tasty nonetheless. The dressing differs from the typical seasoned fish sauce in that it is not as sweet and somewhat milder in flavour.
Bo La Lot ("Grilled beef in vive leaves"), $10
I am having some success with making my kids branch out from their customary grilled chicken and white rice with these bo la lot or beef mince in betel leaves. Kind of like a sausage roll! But green! These were pretty good - the mince was not too fatty and they were well seasoned. To eat, place in a piece of lettuce with herbs and pickled vegies (a nice and unusual touch) and dip in seasoned sauce. Pay $2 more and get the banh hoi version, I reckon. On learning these were for the kids, the waiter brought the dipping sauce without chilli especially for them.
Water spinach with garlic sauce, $12
Ha Long was reputed to have amazing Chinese broccoli with garlic and this water spinach or rau muong was divine! The garlic must have been poached or pickled somehow as it had lost all its acrid intensity and was just smooth and almost creamy in flavour, just like roasted garlic cloves. Some of the stems were a bit woody but overall, an great dish.
Com chien ca man ("Fried rice with salted fish"), $10
If you normally just eat combination fried rice, try something different with this fried rice with salted fish. The salted fish gives a delicious umami tang to the otherwise kid-friendly meal of white rice, lightly seasoned and tossed with egg, chicken and a little lettuce. Some of the pieces of salted fish were a bit chunky but the flavour was totally oh-yeah.
Ca phe su da, $3.50
Think there is no good coffee in Footscray? Think again. I love the jolt you get when you take the first sip of an excellent Vietnamese iced coffee like this one. Smoothies also got the thumbs up.
This is a great restaurant - they are very welcoming to kids and the service is friendly. Sadly they have none of their intriguing "Nem Sen" or lotus spring rolls as they cannot get the appropriate ingredient from Vietnam. The list of bun or rice vermicelli salads is particularly impressive - Billy has given them a big thumbs up as having best bun thit nuong in Footscray! (Stop by Half-Eaten to see more Sen deliciousness). And who needs a TV when you have fish?
74-76 Nicholson St, Footscray (cnr Nicholson and Droop) - map
Phone: 9687 4450
Phone: 9687 4450
No wheelchair access