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.
It’s often remarked that being multi-talented or multi-functional is never anywhere near as good as being exceptional at just one thing. This is probably why Com Tam Nguyen Van Cu (167 Nguyen Van Cu, Q5) has managed to uphold such a fine reputation amongst foreign diners despite having one of the least extensive menus of any other popular restaurant in the city. Truth be known, there’s no physical menu at all quite yet, despite the restaurant having been in business for 20 years now — what you see on the counter is what you get.
Aesthetically, Zest is unlike any restaurant I’ve encountered in Saigon; a cross between a North American industrial warehouse (whitewashed breezeblocks, metal support beams and pillars, high ceilings) and a Scandinavian villa (wooden slats), making for an extremely open, cool and airy atmosphere. The wry foodie twist applied to the propaganda-style poster artwork painted onto the walls is equally unique, adding a slight kitschy feel to the surrounds.
One of Vietnam’s more unusual culinary creations received considerable international media coverage last month. Touted as Hanoi’s answer to Ronald McDonald, the VietMac (207 Nguyen Van Troi, Phu Nhuan, www.vietmac.com.vn) is a local reboot of the classic burger recipe — with two rice patties replacing the hamburger bun. Now that they’re being served in Ho Chi Minh City on the Phu Nhuan end of the airport road, it’s only a mildly expensive taxi ride to go and see what they taste like.
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.
Seafood restaurants are a dime a dozen in Vietnam, enjoyed daily from north to south. Yet, on a cool Monday evening in deepest, darkest District 7, idle staff at Nha Hang Ca Bien Saigon Moi out-number customers two-to-one. No one’s here, reducing the atmosphere to a damp squib.
There are some Vietnamese dishes that seem to regularly win favour with foreign diners. One such dish is com tam. The name refers to the shattered grains of rice that are used in the recipe — developed by poor farming communities, who in times gone by would sell the whole grains but reserve for themselves the rice that broke during the rough threshing process. A humble peasant’s dish this may be, but the resulting meal has a soft, fluffy consistency with a slightly nutty flavour.
Though looks aren’t everything, it’s hard not to be dazzled by Ly Club’s plush aesthetic beauty — itself a homage to the creative prowess of the Ly Dynasty. Elegant yet casual, we sit in a softly lit and greenly shrouded front garden, surrounded by comfy French-style garden furniture atop a raised wooden deck area. A stunning infinity fountain, a vast French colonial villa and a sleek outdoor bar make for captivating eye candy. The cacophonous rush hour traffic is replaced by the swirl of Eurasian lounge music.
The roundabout at Nguyen Tri Phuong and Ngo Gia Tu on the border of Cholon and District 10 is an odd place for an outlet of one of Taiwan’s foremost snack chains. And yet on the wall of an unaffected, sidewalk-dining, local-style restaurant, is the unmistakable trademark of the Starbucks of the soy milk world, Yonghe Doujiang Da Wang. The name in Mandarin is a mouthful and the ostentatious translation is just as tough on the tongue — ‘The Eternal Harmony Soy Milk King’. Fortunately, the drinks and cuisine here are anything but.