Occasionally bars and restaurants open their doors and are an instant hit. Occasionally.
Racha Room is one such place.
Serving up contemporary Thai cuisine in a lounge bar-style setting, this four-month-old venture has transcended the difficult-to-conquer problem of the restobar — finding the right balance between the needs of the diners and those of the drinkers. But the balance is a fine one. As operations manager Greg explains, Vietnamese diners don’t mind the smell of smoke in their vicinity. The majority of Western diners hate it. The solution? Before 9.30pm you are only allowed to smoke in the bar area.
That they’re trying to strike this balance says much about the ambition of this venture. With possibly only a handful of other venues truly managing to fit into the restobar theme — the beer clubs are no more than glorified quan nhau — not only have they entered an untested realm, but they have created for themselves a double challenge. Both the food and the drink must be top-notch.
Down to Business
My visit to Racha Room was my fourth, but on previous occasions I’d been there as a drinker, only sampling bites and morsels of other people’s dishes.
Arriving without an entourage of fellow revellers, this time I found myself taking in the ambience. Bare brick walls, high ceilings, a bar area, three dining spaces including a mezzanine level, but most notably, the spray-painted Thai elephant on the wall. Screaming the word ‘traditional’, the elephant in the room also screeches ‘contemporary’.
The cuisine follows this theme.
For my starter I went for the som tum salad (VND65,000). I love the street food version of this dish. Some years ago I spent three months in Thailand and som tum, with its pumice-crushed snake beans, chilli, sour papaya, cherry tomatoes, dried baby shrimp and fish sauce, became a daily staple. Together with the fiery streetside curries, tom yum soup and Chinese noodle soup, it is my palate’s enduring memory of Thai cuisine.
Biting into the papaya the spice descended with explosion-like force on my tongue. A welcome change from the normal, watered-down version of Thai cuisine that you are often served outside of Thailand. This is not a dish for the queasy.
Yet the version here, both ingredients-wise and texture-wise, is different. While the green papaya, chilli, fish sauce and dried shrimps are present, the other ingredients are missing or altered, the papaya sliced rather than shaved. And it is still every bit as good. Som tum has a kick to it, and this version has Muay Thai written all over it.
Two and Two Equals Five
To wash down the spice I went for the gin sin sling cocktail (VND150,000). A cursory look at the bar area and I spotted well over 100 different spirits on its shelves — a mixologist’s paradise, especially in Vietnam.
Except for the peach liquor element, like the elephant spray painted on the wall it bleated out the word Thailand. With Keffir lime leaf, lime juice and lemongrass, it tasted like a cocktail version of tom yum, just without the shrimp and that overdose of chilli. Another hit.
When I ordered my Massaman beef rib curry (VND360,000), I ordered it spicy. Like the som tam it came out to the table within minutes — the kitchen is well set up here. Yet such are the infusions and alterations with this dish that it came out as a peanut-based mix between a French casserole with black pepper sauce and the original Thai-Persian dish from which it takes both its name and its origin.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t spicy. Despite this minor disappointment, the curry was tasty nonetheless, the beef melting in my mouth, the sauce sitting perfectly with the jasmine rice on the side. I almost wiped the bowl clean.
A friend of mine recently raved at me about Racha Room. “They’re going crazy with the cuisine there,” he said. “They’re experimenting with everything.”
From the cocktails to the cuisine, Racha Room is very much a grand experiment. But it’s an experiment where right now, most things are falling into place.
Racha Room is at 12-14 Mac Thi Buoi, Q1, Ho Chi Minh City
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