January 18, 2008
40 Ky Dong Street
District 3, Ho Chi Minh City
Banh Beo – steamed rice cakes with minced shrimp, scallion oil, nuoc mam
Goi Mit – jackfruit salad with sesame rice crackers
Cha Gio – deep-fried rice paper with pork filing
Com Hen – rice with baby clams, herbs, sesame crackers, star fruit
Ca Hu Kho – fish braised in a clay pot
Sticky rice cakes, chicken sauteed with lemongrass
The Astronomer: The Gastronomer and I recently paid a return visit to Ngu Vien to celebrate our friend Zach becoming Ashton Kutcher. All-in-all, the event was a success: the new girlfriend looked a bit younger than I had imagined and seemed surprisingly comfortable socializing with a bunch of recent college graduates, and the food was excellent. We were sufficiently inspired to follow up the luncheon with a triple date at the Saigon Superbowl, but that’s another story.
We started off the meal with some banh beo. I would have preferred to save it for Yen Do and order something more unique—why pay more for a dish that a streetside eatery does perfectly—but I couldn’t really complain about ordering an imperial classic at a restaurant specializing in Hue food. The banh beo was served individually in small dishes. It was well-executed, but I’ve decided that I prefer the version with all the cakes together in a large platter, drowning in sweet nuoc mam.
Next up was some goi mit and a plate of cha gio. The cha gio were hot out of the frying oil and quite tasty, but once again I would have been happy to wait and get them streetside. Served warm, the goi mit was really a standout. Less juicy and much heartier than most fruit-based salads, the dish’s flavors melded perfectly. The crunchy sesame crackers were an ideal vehicle for the mixture of jackfruit, pork, shrimp, and basil. We gobbled it right up.
In another foray into central Vietnamese cuisine, we decided to try the com hen. We’ve been told that this dish sucks in Saigon because the clams aren’t fresh, and indeed Ngu Vien was unable to recreate Hue’s magic. However, it was the best effort I’ve tasted around here–a worthwhile side dish.
Ever since our first meal at Ngu Vien, the Gastronomer has been raving about the ca hu kho, and she couldn’t resist ordering it again. It didn’t disappoint—although I find the plethora of small bones in the fish annoying, I would order it just to be able to pour the extra sauce on my rice.
Finally, we decided to try the chicken with sticky rice cakes. I really loved the little sweet pillows of fried sticky rice, and the chicken was delicious as well, if not particularly memorable. I’ve been impressed by the consistency of Ngu Vien’s cooking; I can’t help comparing it to Com Nieu Saigon, where the occasional horrendous dish nearly ruins the memory of the better ones.
While not entirely devoid of the typical Vietnamese eccentricities, the service at Ngu Vien is solid. They generally give you time to look over the menu without a waitress waiting awkwardly hovering over you, and the food comes in discrete courses rather than all at once. On this occasion we had a bit of trouble getting our white rice to arrive, but it was pleasant getting to savor a couple of dishes that actually felt like appetizers.
If I had a complaint, it would be that the place is somewhat lacking in atmosphere. It’s clean but not beautiful, and it has been nearly empty on both of our visits. This saddens me, because the food is terrific. Maybe toning down the neon signage and building a roof over the tables drove away their Vietnamese clientele. Or perhaps there are better crowds at dinner. In any case, I would choose the Ngu Vien experience over the gorgeous decor and hit-or-miss cuisine of the new Com Nieu Saigon any day. We’ll certainly be back.