Peeping out from below Au Lac Saigon Hotel is Bahdja, Saigon’s first Algerian restaurant. Taken from the Arabic noun for ‘happiness’, Bahdja not only attempts to produce authentic, multi-ethnic Berber North African and Mediterranean cuisine cooked and served in a traditional Algerian style, but also a genuinely pleasant Arabic-influenced dining experience.

Aesthetically, everything is spot on, from the contemporary Arab-style furnishings and ornaments to the traditional wailing music heard overhead. The ear-to-ear smile, mild demeanour, and warm hospitality extended by the Algerian owner is typical of such family-run eateries.
He explains that, apart from the chef (also Algerian), he’s on his own tonight. His staff has fallen ill, and he apologises in case the service isn’t up to scratch. Kudos for the heads up, but with only one other couple dining and a small group of drinkers outside, there probably couldn’t be a better night to be understaffed.

 

After listening to the owner describe nearly every dish on the menu in mouth-watering detail, we order the couscous royale and mtewem tajine as well as a bottle of Moroccan red wine.

 

A free basket of homemade semolina wheat bread is quickly popped on our table along with some pickles and homemade harissa-style chilli paste dip and a portion of baba ghanoush. Speckled with sesame seeds the bread is deliciously light and chewy with an elastic and spongy texture, the type one could easily eat all day. The dips are equally addictive. The potency of the chilli paste is fiery though controlled, while the smoky roasted eggplant puree balances its constituent parts (garlic, tahini, olive oil and lemon juice) perfectly.

 

A short time follows before the mains arrive, allowing us to indulge in the bottle of Domaine de Sahari. Using Guerrouane grapes from high-altitude appellations situated beneath the Atlas Mountains in the Meknes and Fez region of Morocco, it’s a rich yet highly smooth and palatable wine.

 

The couscous royale and mtewem tajine arrive in tandem in several brown, glazed clay pots. The former separates a bowl of couscous from another containing a mixed-vegetable and chickpea stew and a side plate of grilled lamb chops, merguez sausages and baked chicken.

 

The couscous is moist, light and fluffy, while the chickpea stew, containing tomatoes, onions and chunks of carrots, zucchini and daikon radish, is wholesome and healthy. All the meats are beautifully tender and moist, though it’s the excellent merguez sausage that impresses most thanks to its full-bodied flavour that appears to incorporate lots of garlic, fennel, cumin, sumac, paprika and more harissa chilli.

 

Already feeling two-thirds full, the sight of the mtewem tajine is almost too much, though we plough on regardless. Consisting of slow-cooked, braised lamb, minced beef, potatoes and chickpeas in a garlic sauce, it’s almost too salty, though there’s something decidedly moreish about this dish as we use more homemade bread to mop up the excess sauce.

 

No desserts are on offer, but that’s ok, we’re stuffed. It’s then we realise that a restaurant such as Bahdja is best experienced as a group, when you can really take advantage of the menu and order a bevy of dishes. Tonight, we’ve barely scratched the surface. Eating in Arab-influenced North Africa isn’t seen as just a meal, it’s supposed to be a social event. And the experience at Bahdja warrants exactly that.

 

The Prices

Couscous royale VND390,000

Mtewem tajine VND280,000

Domaine de Sahari VND800,000

 

The Verdict

Food: 10

Service: 11

Decor: 10.5

 

Food, decor and service are each rated on a scale of 0 to 15:
13 — 15 extraordinary to perfection
10 — 12.5 very good to excellent
8 — 9.5 good to very good
5 — 7.5 fair to good
0 — 4.5 poor to fair

Word reviews anonymously and pays for all meals

Mystery Diner

The Mystery Diner is a person hailing from a country that may or may not be Vietnam. S/he can be seen frequently in the restaurants and cafes of Hanoi and HCMC, searching for the most delicious meals each city has to offer. Look for the masked figure in a cape, lurking in the darkest corners of your neighbourhood com tam or pho joint.

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