I was walking towards Restaurant Hà when I felt the first drops of rain. I had scheduled an interview with the new restaurant’s owners and no amount of wet weather was going to turn me around. By the time I reached the restaurant, which beyond its terrasse lies a splendid view of Parc Jeanne-Mance, the trees were bending over backwards in the sudden and severe wind. The sky darkened quickly and just as I stepped inside Hà, the heavens opened wide and drenched the city. When I arrived two of the principal owners, Francisco Randez and his partner Flore-Anne Ducharme, were giving their second to last interview of the evening. I took a seat and was waiting only a few minutes before they both headed my way. They each took a stool and propped themselves up at the bar. Their shoulders were slumped and they carried a look of fatigue that can only come from being on your feet for more hours than you bargained for.
Keeping the interview as unstructured as possible, I prepared only a few talking points to lead the conversation and let them tell their story more organically. When I asked them how it all began, without hesitation Francisco pointed at Flore-Anne like a big brother tattling on his sister; she was the instigator. She smiled and started telling me that they all came together out of a genuine and common love for Souvenirs d’Indochine, the restaurant that once occupied the space. When they learned the Mr. Hà was ready to usher his restaurant into a new era they jumped on the chance to ensure his legacy would be kept in tact. The process started last May with Francisco (pictured above; right), Flore-Anne (pictured above; centre) and a third partner, Nic Urli (pictured above;left) deciding that the best way to pay homage to Mr. Hà (pictured above; centre-right) was to name the restaurant after him. He was, after all, the heart and soul of Souvenirs d’Indochine. For decades people would flock to the restaurant to see him and eat the food he had prepared. Going forward with the new concept, the three new partners wanted Mr. Hà to be an integral part of the evolution of his restaurant.
After a few minutes I noticed that as Francisco and Flore-Anne started talking about the restaurant their fatigue seemed to slip away. The slumped shoulders were gone and instead of tired eyes I saw sparks of excitement ignite. As they elaborated on the concept of the new restaurant, they explained their inspiration. Hà is Montreal’s answer to the popular Vietnam restaurant format known as Bai Hoi (Vietnamese for fresh beer). Often found in corner stores and set up as make shift restaurants and bars, Bai Hoi are veritable cultural centers in Vietnam. Everything from casual conversation to massive business deals go down in and around these little noodle shops. They are nothing fancy but the food is delicious. While Hà does have a fancy side, the staples that inspire Montreal’s first Bai Hoi remain the same, good food, fresh beer and a pleasant atmosphere. We got our first taste of bai hoi last Friday when they quietly opened Hà for a 3-day soft launch. They hilariously explained me how they got their asses kicked and loved every minute of it. Francisco told me that they knew there was buzz around their restaurant but nothing prepared them for what they experienced. Montrealers came out in curious droves to see what all the fuss was about. Needless to say, they were all extremely excited about the response.
As the rain kept pouring down we kept chatting about the backgrounds that each of the individuals bring to the table at Hà. Of course Mr. Hà brings decades of experience in the area (and a fan following) and without a doubt remains the heart and soul of the restaurant. Francisco is active in TV and radio (I’m sure most of you may know who he is!) and is former owner of the La Porte Rouge on Mount Royal. Nic keeps busy with both Flyjin and Velvet and Flore-Anne, I learned, has a long past in media relations with Les Évadés. The time seemed to fly by as our twenty-minute chat quickly rolled into an hour. Mr. Ha joined us from the kitchen as Nic arrived with his newborn bundle of joy. Watching the partners together I felt like I was in the midst of a group of friends that had known each other for years. The baby was passed from one set of open arm to the next and enjoyed ever minute of it. While sitting briefly with Nic he repeated a word that Flore-Anne had used earlier in the evening when describing the driving force behind the project: passion.
For each of partners Hà is a way for them to enjoy each other’s company and enjoy the company of the guests that will visit them on a daily basis. I was lucky enough to sample a freshly made soup from a recipe that’s been passed down to one of the chefs from generations past (not even the owners know the recipe) and it was delicious. While slurping I asked Francisco and Flore-Anne what were some of their favorite dishes. Francisco had no trouble telling me that he loves Mr. Hà’s tonkinese soup while Flore-Anne was more evasive with her answer. She is a fan of more than one menu item. Everything at Hà will be made fresh to order and they have tapped local beer producer, Boreal for their freshly served bai hoi (remember the translation). There’s lots of space to sit (65 seats inside and 40 on the terrasse) however a reservation is still recommended if you don’t want to wait. This place is going to be very busy for quite while to come.
When the time came to leave my thoughts drifted back to the word passion. It’s a luxury money can’t buy and being in the restaurant business requires a great deal of passion. It also requires a little risk, a lot of heart but mostly it requires great food and drink that will keep people coming back for more. With all these elements in their corner, the team at Hà is already off to a great start. Enjoy.
Photo credit: Karel C.