No stranger to being knee deep in shrimp shells on any given day, I was rather excited to be reviewing upscale seafood restaurant Song Ngu. In this town there are two ways to enjoy coastal cuisine — either in front of a cheap stainless steel table on the street or in high-end restaurants with expensive tableware. Song Ngu belongs to the latter. While a majority of my experience lies firmly in the former, the extensive menu presented to our party as we sat was a nice departure from the finger pointing ordering I’m used to.

 

The beautiful high-ceiling entrance leading off the street as well as an abundance of greenery felt immediately promising. It certainly looked like we were in for a very traditional experience. And to some extent this would prove to be true. On the one hand the intricately painted china and waitresses in formal ao dai floating around gave a definite Vietnamese feel. Yet the textured walls and odd motifs gave the décor a Mask of Zorro flare that was fairly confusing.

 

Despite the threat of Antonio Banderas vaulting over our table and spilling the soy sauce, we started our night with the cua lot sot trung muoi (soft shell crab with salted egg yolk). Being used to soft shell crab coming in piles of irregular sized crispy morsels, we were surprised that the restaurant priced theirs individually, but luckily despite the size of the portion, the salted egg yolk gave the little crustaceans a welcome richness and decadence. The crab itself had a great texture, but the flavour does fight for prominence against the egg and did get lost after the second or third mouthful.

 

Simply Done

 

While waiting for our main course a troupe of traditional Vietnamese musicians began to play for the diners. Personally I like a bit of classical Vietnamese music and the discordant sounds of the instruments creeping over the room were a nice touch, even if the volume was sometimes a little overpowering.

 

Deciding to test the restaurant’s ability to do the simple food we love well, we ordered tom ram man, a salty sweet shrimp dish with a nice chilli hook, canh chua ca loc (sour soup with river fish) and bo nuong dua (beef in coconut). For the vegetarian in our midst we also ordered rau cai ro xao toi (mustard orchid with garlic) and all round favourite rau muong (morning glory) and the very basic dau hu chien don (deep-fried tofu).

 

The tom ram man was a small portion size considering the price, but luckily the warmth and spice of the sate as well as the bite of the salt were enough to give the dish depth, and it came with enough sauce for the left over rice. Forget the tired overcooked limpness of canh chua ca loc you’ve had before, this one was very much alive and kicking, full of fresh herbs and vegetables, chunks of impossibly smooth fish and a broth we very nearly swam in.

 

A dish that split the group’s opinion was the bo nuong dua — a coconut stuffed full of velvety smooth beef and onion. Despite its exciting presentation, it was rather bland in seasoning, and although the meat did retain a slight hint of the fruit it was cooked in, the consensus was more a case of style over quality. The real star, however, was the rau cai ro, which had a tender bite to it, similar to that of Swiss chard, and a great balance between flavour and substance. We ended up fighting over every morsel.

 

We all agreed that Song Ngu needed an edge, and that what it lacked in individuality and décor it certainly made up for with exceptional and attentive service. Even though fruit and ice cream were the only dessert options, we did leave happy customers. However, with a plethora of similar seafood restaurants to choose from in Saigon, it struggles to stand out from the crowd.

 

The Prices

Cua lot sot trung muoi: VND77,000/crab

Tom ram man: VND128,000

Canh chua ca loc: VND128,000

Bo nuong dua: VND143,000

Rau cai ro xao toi: VND78,000

Rau muong: VND58,000

Dau hu chien don: VND55,000

 

The Verdict

Food: 11

Service: 14

Décor: 7

 

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

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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