The grilled chicken in lime leaves at Papaya, Ho Chi Minh City

 

Tucked into a tangle of streets near the Binh Thanh canal (into which, it appears, neither I nor any of the city’s fine cartographers have previously ventured) you will find what must surely be one of Saigon’s most unsung gems. Papaya is a diminutive restaurant serving some of the most delicious and beautifully prepared Vietnamese food I have eaten in a long time. I spend a good half hour flailing around the ngos and hems before I find the place (the result of being both spatially challenged and armed with a map that bears no correlation to the actual roads) before some kind soul takes pity on me and shows me the way. And I am glad I persevered.

 

The eponymous Chi Nghia, owner and head chef, earned her stripes with stints at Hanoi’s Metropole hotel and the Ho Chi Minh City Sofitel Plaza before establishing a place of her own dedicated to offering traditional northern style cuisine and a few of her own creations. Each of the many dishes try promote her love of food and attention to detail. The food is presented simply but beautifully with emphasis on top quality ingredients prepared with love.

 

We kick off with Hanoi shrimp cakes: crispy slips of sweet potato studded with spanking fresh shrimp. The crunch of their deep fried shells gives way to the sweetly succulent flesh within. I find the sweet potato just a little bit dry (my companion begs to differ) but the dipping sauce soon rectifies any quibbling complaints. A slightly less traditional dish follows: pumpkin buds stuffed with pork and mushroom. The juxtaposition of the earthy, savoury filling with the delicate sweetness of the flowers is addictive. I could eat these all day.

 

Grilled chicken is tender, juicy and infused with the scent of the lime leaves in which it has been wrapped. I remove the leaves (they are a bit chewy and I feel their work is done) but my friend ploughs through them with a slightly bovine intensity. I guess the choice is yours. Portion sizes are far more generous than the pricing suggests and although we are already feeling the pinch, we have another two dishes to come. Delicate slices of pork grilled with ginger and galangal are so tasty, so more-ish, so scrum-diddly-umptious that they disappear almost before we notice. We finish with a gorgeous canh tom muc; slightly sweet, slightly sour with just the right hit of chilli, a couple of fat prawns and slivers of snowy squid swimming in the broth — a fabulous end to a very, very good meal.

 

The restaurant itself is a cute little space that could be made quite lovely with the removal of a few strip lights. Service is friendly, efficient and the staff speak English well, and the beer is cold.

 

Our bill for more food than we really needed (although we did finish every last skerrick) is just a shade over VND220,000. I cannot fathom why there are empty seats. Make your way here as soon as possible.

 

Prices


Hanoi Shrimp Cakes - VND30,000

Pumpkin flowers, pork and mushroom - VND38,000

Chicken grilled with lime leaves - VND59,000

Pork grilled with ginger and galangal - VND58,000

Sour soup with prawn and squid - VND40,000

Steamed rice - VND6,000


Rating

 

Food: 12

Decor: 9

Service: 9.5


Rating System

 

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

 

The Word reviews anonymously and pays for all meals


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