There was a touch of poetic irony on the day we headed to Hanoi’s first authentic French creperie. The weather was cold, the skies were grey and it was pouring with rain. While not exactly the ideal conditions for zipping around town on a scooter, it gave us an appreciation for why the people of Brittany, an area renowned for its bitterly overcast weather, first invented the crepe.
“It is a bit of a running joke among people from Brittany,” laughs Raphael Lemay, co-founder of Hanoi’s first Brittany-inspired crepe house. After visiting Hanoi with middle-school friend and co-owner Ugo Marangoni, the pair returned to Brittany with the goal to one day come back and establish the city’s first authentic creperie.
“When we came here to visit my uncle four years ago, there were crepes and lots of French people, but no authentic crepes like the ones in Brittany,” says Ugo. “Brittany crepes are renowned all over France.”
The pair went back and immediately signed up to their local crepe school with the sole idea of bringing authentic crepes to Hanoi.
All in the Flour
Fast-forward four years and that dream is now a reality, with the pair folding crepes from a stylish townhouse in the alleyway between Au Co Street and the Intercontinental Hotel. The townhouse is handsomely furnished with old prints, rustic wooden benches and communal tables for large groups. The overall feel is rustic, warm and inviting. It’s ideal for plonking yourself down, loosening your belt buckle and feasting on a plate of battered deliciousness.
“Traditionally in Brittany, crepes are enjoyed with your family at a long table and with a mug of locally-made cider,” says Raphael. “We wanted to give the local French people a taste of home and for everyone else, give them the authentic experience of eating crepes — Brittany style.”
So, what is the key to making a good crepe?
“In short, the flour. We use traditional buckwheat flour like they do in Brittany — otherwise how can you say it’s authentic?” says Ugo. Buckwheat, or ‘black wheat’ may not be everyone’s taste, but the pair say its smoky, peasant flavour is best enjoyed with savoury fillings, whereas plain flour (which is also available) is best paired with dessert crepes.
On the Hotplate
In the open kitchen, Raphael treats us to a live demonstration. First, a thin layer of batter is swirled around a bilig hotplate — the chef makes sure the batter is evenly spread. Then, with an artful flick of the wrist, the paper-thin crepe is flipped and layered with generous helpings of smoked salmon and house-prepared leek, the ingredients of the Nordique (VND130,000). The Bergère crepe (VND140,000), a house speciality, is generously stuffed with special goat’s cheese and topped with walnuts, lettuce leaves and swirls of honey. A third, the Forestière (VND120,000), is layered with mushrooms, Emmental cheese and ham.
Each mouthful is rich, hearty and flavourful. The smoky buckwheat taste instantly elevates the flavours of the smoked salmon and leek, while the rich goat’s cheese and combines perfectly with sweetness of the honey and the pleasant crunchiness of the walnuts. The classic combination of ham and cheese melts through the palette with pleasant hints of mushroom. Each bite, of course is interspersed with a gulp of delicious brut (dry) apple cider (VND60,000 per glass or VND280,000 per bottle), specially imported from Brittany and perfect for cleansing the palette with a nice alcoholic kick.
After clearing our plates, Ugo presents us with the Bounty (VND100,000), a plain-flour crepe topped with delicious concoction of chocolate sauce, coconut ice cream and Chantilly. But the real show stopper is the Flambèes. After resting the plate on the table, Ugo quickly sets it alight, infusing the crepe with poached apples and the rich alcoholic taste of Calvados, a strong apple brandy.
The terrace buzzes with a mix of French families and expat couples. Previously the best kept secret of the Francophone community, it appears that Biniou has now earned a place in the hearts of a wide cross section of expats, as well as some curious local diners.
“Initially it started as just the French community coming to eat,” says Ugo. “But then we started getting a lot of Japanese customers and now there’s a broad range. The Vietnamese customers really surprised us — mainly because they kept trying to put chilli sauce on their crepes!” — David Mann
Biniou is at 14 Ngach Ho Ham Long, Ngo 1 Au Co, Tay Ho, Hanoi