A word I’ve long feared has finally reached the Ho Chi Minh City restaurant scene: artisanal.
Not the concept — who doesn’t love traditional homemade food — but the word being tacked willy-nilly onto every new restaurant and foodstuff. It conjures airs of greying master pasta-smiths hand chiselling single penne noodles, or of a stern matron eying apprentices as they labour in the gnocchi mill.
Or perhaps I’ve got an overactive imagination. ‘Namo Artisanal Pizza may be the sort of restaurant where the name is more than a buzzword, and I was resolved to find out.
Dinner and a Show
First impressions favoured ‘Namo; the ground floor has a long sinuous counter of white marble behind which the sauciers, pizzaiolos and sundry chefs toil. Any restaurant that demands you watch them cooking, has the right kind of ego to survive in a cutthroat business, and nothing to hide. It’s practically dinner and a show.
The rest of the décor downstairs seemed okay; for the dimly lit dining room, the other show is the street-scene on Hai Ba Trung.
Though late on a weekday night, a hostess whisked me to a table, with menus in hand before I’d settled into my seat. A nice beginning, but the proof of the restaurant is in the eating.
So I ordered a glass of Terre Allegre red wine (VND120,000, and quite good at that cost) and my usual bottle of San Pellegrino (VND90,000 for a half litre, or what you normally pay for 75cl) and turned a stern eye on the menu.
Easily Satisfied by the Best of Everything
For those of you who read the periodic reviews of Italian restaurants in the Word, you may have noticed certain dishes cropping up over and over: pizza Diavola and pasta all’Amatriciana. The reason is that both dishes are simple yet exacting and require ingredients whose quality must be high. In short, two dishes provide a decent snapshot of a restaurant’s inner workings.
The bucatini all’Amatriciana (VND270,000) certainly passed the test in every way but one; the spaghetti-like noodles were dense and near-chewy, obviously high quality, and perfectly cooked. The sauce was cheerful and tangy with tomatoes, a hint of heat from the red peppers. Most of all, the meat was not the limp bacon served in many restaurants but imported guanciale; the good stuff that deserves a name like artisanal because it takes a craftsman to smoke pork cheeks properly. So what was lacking? The unmistakable sharp, nutty smokiness of pecorino cheese… or at least enough to properly balance the dish. I also found the portion small for the price.
Pizza of the Devil
‘Namo has evolved their own version of a pizza Diavola (VND390,000) that includes ‘nduja, the famous spreadable sausage, as well as the expected spicy salami and mozzarella. Wood-fire simply cooks pizza better, crisping the crust and bubbling the cheese quickly and leaving the faintest hint of smoke over everything. The pizza was averaged-size for local Italian places, but at that price… well.
Tiramisu (VND150,000), a double espresso (VND75,000) and a free limoncello ended the night, another favourite combination of mine. The limoncello is a tart treat house-made by the chef and only sporadically available. It’s also not officially on the menu. All three were excellent; the tiramisu came with ladyfingers in the shape of pancakes, an attractive innovation. The cake was moist, not soaked, and the mascarpone more sauce than spread. The espresso was rich and dark.
So all in all, the food, décor and service were good. Here’s my serious reservation: the price. I ate a hefty meal and had leftovers, but I also know places where three can dine quite as well for the total cost of VND1.26 million. So while I certainly enjoyed ‘Namo Artisanal Pizza, the premium here is quite obviously for the location (it’s behind the Opera House) and the show — the pasta-smiths at work, laboriously carving each noodle.
‘Namo Artisinal Pizzeria is located at 76/4 Hai Ba Trung, Q1, HCMC. Its website is namo.pizza
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