International cuisine in a non-fine dine setup is always special, even more so when a migrant sets up a kitchen to dish out the most authentic food of that region. Smiley House earned its stripes as the only authentic Vietnamese restaurant in Pune, run by a Vietnamese lady from Saigon.
Smiley House is a very small restaurant located near the Medipoint hospital in Aundh. Its so small that the first time I landed up there, I had to ask for directions to the place when I was standing 15 meters from it. A little ‘Welcome to my Home’ sign put up at the entrance stands out and probably defines this place. It definitely feels like home as you also need to remove your footwear before entering the homely setup of 4 sit down tables. The decor is bright and vibrant and a counter separates the seating area from the open kitchen where Hoa Be (owner & chef) can be seen in all her different moods (more on that later).
I was late to the party and only made my first real attempt at visiting the place when I found out it was shutting down on 10 Mar 2016. The restaurant operates in the India time zone during lunch but for some reason switches to Vietnam time for dinner – I mean which restaurant in India opens for dinner at 6 pm and runs out of food at 8 pm AND is shut on Sunday and Monday? This was the main reason I could never visit this place earlier despite hearing such good reviews. As luck would have it, Smiley House was shut when I visited it for the first time on a Wednesday evening. I found out later that Hoa Be did not open that evening as her help did not turn up!
In the following week, I reached the restaurant at 6.15 pm and still managed to be the 2nd customer that evening. I started off the food binge with Nem (Fried Spring Rolls with Chicken) and Pho (Rice Noodle Soup Meal with Buff). The fried spring rolls were nothing like I expected – they were light, not oily at all and the stuffing was cold even though the spring rolls were fried. The dip was flavorful and complimented the spring rolls well. Most people rave about the Pho at this place but I have my reservations about anything that’s soupy, bland and full of boiled veggies.
Next came Banh Trang Cuon (Summer Rolls with Chicken) and unfortunately even these were stuffed with fresh veggies. I found the presentation to be quite unique with the rice wrapper with a consistent texture holding the stuffing really well and still giving you a quick peek at whats inside. Pork and their daily specials weren’t available so had to stick to their Com Chien (Fried Rice). I ordered 1 portion each of Chicken and Buff Com Chien. This is very different from the Chinese version of the Fried Rice. Vietnamese Com Chien is a sticky rice held together with a mixture of oil, sauce and egg. One bite and you know this is not like anything you’ve had before. Add the chilly-garlic-vinegar mix on the table and the pungent flavor makes the Com Chien taste even better.
It was probably my first and the last time at Smiley House and I was quite disappointed that none of the cold drinks (Smiley House Special, Vietnamese Iced coffee) were available that evening. Even the Coconut Jelly wasn’t available but we did get to try the Vietnamese Black Coffee (hot) and Caramel Custard. I’m a Black Coffee addict and this one was one of the best I’ve had in Pune. Caramel Custard was quite plain and can be avoided.
Being a small outlet, there is a lot of waiting if you reach the place anytime after 7 pm. And with only 1 person cooking everything, getting a table and your food takes time which regulars are aware of and first timers realize very quickly. Sadly, the only person without any patience or calm is the owner/chef which is quite evident with all the ‘No’s thrown around and the high pitch tone used while talking to customers. The great food at Smiley House probably overshadows this aspect but impatient people may end up spoiling their mood over the owner’s behavior.
It is sad that a place like Smiley House is shutting down. Despite all its shortcomings on the operations side, the food was well appreciated by everyone. If you haven’t yet tried this place out, you still have until 10th March to do so. So long, Vietnam!