I discovered Quan Kien on a rainy Wednesday night when I almost didn’t go out. Only the fact that a friend was leaving for Italy soon, persuaded me.
Arriving on Nghi Tam, we shuffled down the stairs to the cellar, a dimly-lit brick room with three low wooden tables and a whimsical mural of cartoon ants on the wall.
But my first visit was more about drinking rice wine than eating, so I recently went back for a more sober examination of Quan Kien’s culinary treats.
A Question of Ants
Opened in 2009 by journalist-turned-businesswoman, Thuy Anh, and her husband, Quan Kien is a family affair. I met with her brother, Son, who bartends at the restaurant’s newly opened second location in Hai Ba Trung. He told me that his sister is always busy travelling the remote corners of Vietnam, searching for new regional recipes to put on the menu, with most of their ingredients sourced from their farm in Ba Vi. Their goal is to preserve traditional Vietnamese cuisine, with an added modern twist. The most infamous of these foods is also where the restaurant gets its name: ants. Son insisted I try their Ant Eggs in Sticky Rice (VND120,000), and though I am highly skeptical of munching on bugs, I’ll do almost anything for a story.
In preparation for the ants to come, Son brought out an array of house-made rice wines. The restaurant makes nearly 20 different varieties, from rose apple to yellow daisy to passion fruit, with bottles starting at an affordable VND55,000. It’s only fitting that their motto is, “Let’s get drunk together”. After a healthy tasting of rice wines, I was ready for the bugs.
And I have to admit, the ants were delicious. The tiny white ant eggs were nestled among warm sticky rice, juicy chopped mushrooms, pork, chilli, lemongrass and fried onions, served with crispy rice crackers for scooping up all the savoury goodness. There was a distinct flavour to it that I still can’t place, but that must just be what ants taste like. Our photographer Khanh even found a grown-up fire ant in his scoop of rice, which he proceeded to show to everyone on his chopstick before swallowing it whole.
My favourite dish by far, though, were the grilled scallops with onion (VND85,000). Each little shell is stuffed with peanuts, scallions, fried onions, and a secret sauce which Son declined to tell me about (this place has a lot of delicious secrets). Served with wasabi-soy sauce to drizzle on top, I could eat an entire plate of these in one sitting. But my stomach space was growing ever more scarce, as the duck breast and morning glory salad (VND82,000) competed for room. Colourful and crunchy, with succulent chunks of cold duck breast and a surprise kick from hidden chilli slices, this salad has everything you could ever want. It’s sweet and sour, light and filling, and there are even peanuts in the mix that give it some added bulk. Bonus: It’s huge, and could easily feed two to three people.
Quan Kien’s affordable, authentic fare is perfect for dinner parties and leaving dos, or impressing those friends from overseas who finally came to visit you. Plan a night here when you want to get drunk, adventurous and very, very full. — Jesse Meadows
Quan Kien is at 143 Nghi Tam, Tay Ho, Hanoi