The co-founder of Cafe Hanoi reveals exciting menu and design details of the popular restaurant’s bigger, bolder new space on Galway St next to The Hotel Britomart.

Ten years ago, restaurateurs Krishna Botica and Tony McGeorge introduced Aucklanders to a sophisticated kind of modern Vietnamese food the city hadn’t tried before. This week, after a brief closure, they reopen the restaurant just doors from the original site, in a vibrant new space that walks through into the laneway of the new Hotel Britomart. With a larger private dining area, full bar, outside porch and a yet-to-come second downstairs restaurant, the new Cafe Hanoi opens with the confidence of 10 years of success already behind it. To celebrate, chef Nathan Houpapa has created an extensive menu that takes the fragrant and spicy flavour profiles of their food to new depths. Melinda Williams talked to Krishna Botica about what diners will find when they try the new space.

Melinda Williams: Strange circumstances notwithstanding, how are you feeling about this week’s reopening?

Krishna Botica: I’m very excited about reopening. Every reopening of a restaurant brand, you have anxieties, but these ones are simply around financials and not around brand or getting it right for the customers. We already have a strong brand so the fact that we’re just tweaking it and making it more exciting is great.

Cafe Hanoi has been a landmark on the Britomart and Auckland dining scene for 10 years now – which is a real achievement given that restaurant years are measured a bit like dog years. What do you think has been the key to its success?

I think the cuisine speaks for itself. For people who haven’t been to Southeast Asia, what Cafe Hanoi brought was a level of sophistication to Asian cuisine in Auckland – apart from Japanese, which has always been perceived as sophisticated. What we did was show people that Vietnamese was not just a cheap-eat option; that it could be quality food with its origins in street food. When it’s matched with fabulous New Zealand wines and cocktails, it can actually stand up to all the other types of cuisine in its sophistication.

How is the food changing with the move to a new space?

What we’ve done now is a deeper dive into the food in terms of all its nuances. It’s had some much influence from China, from Japan, from France as well, from that 70-year period of colonisation. That deep dive for us has come from Nathan’s deeper understanding of those nuances and bringing them forward into modern times and the cooking tools we have these days, whether that be a sous-vide or a Rational [a brand of professional combination oven] that can be used to perfect techniques in a live cooking situation. 

What excitement awaits diners on the new menu this week?

We’ve put a new section into both the food and beverage menus, which we call the aperitif menu. It focuses on Vietnamese charcuterie – cured meats, dried meats and homemade sausages – as well as Vietnamese paté, which is famous in things like banh mi. I think the charcuterie is going to blow people’s minds. They won’t have experienced anything like it in their New Zealand dining experiences. 

On the drinks side, we’ve focused on hand-made aperitifs – not all from France, we’ve got one from New Zealand that is really amazing – which are there to support that Vietnamese bar-snacking style of eating. Included within that are skewers – well, they’re cooked on the skewer on the grill and served off the skewer.  

The other path that we’re going down for The Parlour, which will be our group-booking site, is large format items – whole duck, whole cuts of beef, pork shoulder, things like that. That won’t be fully revealed with our opening this week, but will be when we open our group banquet-style dining. We’ll have a duck a l’orange, which is not a classic duck a l’orange, but our chef Nate has given it the Vietnamese twist that makes it a full-palate experience.

What’s your personal pick from the menu?

Mine is the octopus tentacles, which Nathan sous-vides and then cooks on the grill, and serves with an absolutely divine green chilli and kaffir-lime sauce. I challenge anyone to figure out how Nathan makes that sauce, because it took him two years to figure it out, and he’s the master.

Back when you were deciding whether to take the new site next to The Hotel Britomart for Cafe Hanoi, what made you decide to go for it?

We did have to think about it quite hard, because people do get quite attached to venues. They return to restaurants because they get what they expect. But there were three deciding factors. One was our private dining room, which previously was subterranean and will become mezzanine, so we can see it from the dining room floor. The other aspect was that the mezzanine level is very flexible - we can have up to 45 people there. And the third reason was that we get a new restaurant as part of the deal. We will add another basement restaurant, which we will open when Covid allows us to. And the proximity to the Hotel Britomart, and being part of it. For us, that’s another step into redefining ourselves into cosmopolitan, international, could-be-anywhere-on-the-planet. That’s success for us. The international aspect of our market will come back at some point.

You worked with Cheshire on both the original and new designs for Cafe Hanoi. How is the new space going to be different – or the same?

Cheshire are the dream team for Tony. They were very aware that we wanted some level of comfort for people who have come before, but in a different space. So a lot of design decisions were made around what made it quintessentially Cafe Hanoi. Those things have been transferred over – for example the lighting, the cabinetry styling and many of the colour features. 

But we felt we had to push the boat out – there’s no point spending money on a restaurant if you’re not going to do something you haven’t done before. So what we’ve done, which I’m extremely excited about, is a kitchen-counter intimate-dining experience. Basically, the kitchen is so open that it doesn’t even have walls on it. It’s literally a bench in the middle of the restaurant where the chefs will be preparing the food. It’s completely open. And the other part is having a proper bar, where our patrons can be fed and watered while they wait to be seated in the main dining room. 

Finally, as everyone – but perhaps more so than most, the hospitality industry – works through challenging times, what thought or vision keeps you going each day? 

Personally, it’s just get up and put one foot in front of the other. The days of having high expectations for business outcomes are over for me at the moment. It’s most important that everyone’s mutual wellbeing – the staff, the customers, me – is looked after. Which means that the staff can smile and create the most enjoyable experience possible for the diners, because we have no idea what’s going on in their background. And from the staff point of view, we want to make sure we’re as closely connected to them as we can be. That used to be a nice-to-have in restaurant cultures, but that’s a need-to-have now, more than ever.