Archive for the 'Dessert' Category

Tea for Three

February 16, 2008
Cuisine: English, Vietnamese, Dessert

Caravelle Hotel
19 Lam Son Square, District 1, HCMC

Phone: 84.8.8234 999

IMG_7365Sure, I love street food. But I also love luxurious indulgences. After all, variety is the spice of life.

I’ve been aching to attend tea at one of the posh hotels in town for quite some time. Lush’s visit provided a fine occasion to sip and nibble the afternoon away. We checked out the menus at the Park Hyatt and the Sheraton, but settled on the Caravelle because they offered both a traditional English bill of fare and a Vietnamese one.

IMG_7387I started the afternoon off with a hefty glass of Vietnamese coffee, while The Astronomer ordered peppermint tea and Lush had a lotus brew (above). Even though the coffee was insanely good and strong, I later regretted my decision to veer from tea due to the onslaught of sweets to come. The peppermint tea was a crowd pleaser, while the lotus was too bitter for all of us.

Our savories and sweets were served on three-tiered, stainless steel presentation pieces that were imposing upon our modest coffee table, yet awe inspiring (R). In fact, onlookers from inside and outside the hotel gawked at the structures.

The Astronomer couldn’t stand a day without Vietnamese food and went for the “Lotus” offerings. The top tier (L) included an open-faced sandwich with cheddar cheese, apricots, walnuts and smoked ham, and spring rolls with hoisin sauce. The spring rolls did not stray far from traditional goi coun, while the sandwich was simple and dainty. After months without whole grain breads and cheeses other than Laughing Cow, the open-faced sandwich made The Astronomer and I a little giddy.

The second tier included two crab meat and pork eggrolls with a chili dipping sauce, chicken satay with peanut sauce and a pomelo salad served with shrimp chips (R). I was definitely in the mood for English fare and found the Vietnamese offerings fairly run of the mill. The eggrolls were the usual, as was the pomelo salad. The chicken satay with peanut sauce was a nice departure from the traditional Vietnamese food on hand. The Astronomer enjoyed each of the items because his heart bleeds fish sauce.

The desserts on the Lotus menu were not nearly as extensive as the traditional one, but offered good variety (R). A shortbread cookie, raisin scone, fresh fruit skewer, chocolate filled with lemon curd and “Vietnamese traditional pudding in banana leaf” rounded out the selections. The curious “pudding” turned out to be a gelatinous coconut cake infused with jasmine. The Astronomer and I did not care too much for it, but Lush was a fan. With the exception of the pudding, everything on the Lotus dessert plate was offered on the English menu and will be assessed below.

The top tier of my English offerings included a smoked salmon bagel sandwich accented with dill and salmon roe, a cucumber and tomato sandwich, and the same open-faced sandwich as above (L). The cucumber and tomato sandwich was dusted in parsley and perfect for the occasion. Tea just isn’t quite tea without a crust-less triangular sandwich made from white bread. The salmon number was my favorite. I took my sweet time eating it, savoring each smoky bite. Oh, how I love the salty pop of salmon roe!

The second tier contained a raisin scone, shortbread cookie, fruit muffin, and a dish of raspberry jam and clotted cream (R). The scone and muffin were tasty and fluffy. Their moist surfaces provided excellent vehicles for consuming jam and clotted cream. The clotted cream tasted like a cross between butter and unsweetened whipped cream and was almost too decadent. The shortbread was given to The Astronomer because he likes mild cookies.

The richest dessert was the bittersweet chocolate tart (L). The velvety interior was contained by a crumbly and buttery crust. I maxed out at three bites, and had to share the rest with The Astronomer. Lush, a chocoholic if you will, couldn’t finish hers either. I guess some desserts are just too intense.

My favorite dessert of the afternoon was the fruit tartlet (R). Bite-sized orbs of mango, dragon fruit kiwi and raspberry rested atop a thin, golden crust painted with chocolate and filled with vanilla cream. The entire tartlet was glazed in a simple syrup until the fruits gleaned. Sweet, tart, creamy, chocolaty goodness! I could have eaten a couple more of these.

The British vanilla and cherry trifle (L) was another highlight of the dessert offerings. The creamy custard and whipped cream coupled with the tart cherries and liquor-laced cake left Lush and I yearning for more. The bottom layer of rum-soaked pound cake was my favorite because I am a pirate.

The chocolate box filled with lemon curd (R) was one of The Astronomer’s favorite desserts. As the chocolate box entered our mouths, it effortlessly collapsed, combining smoothly with the lemon curd. While we’ve all had chocolate and fruit paired together numerous times, we had never experienced it with lemons. Lemons and chocolate are indeed a good team.

The selection of fruits balanced out the overwhelming sweetness of some of the desserts. In addition to the fresh fruit skewer (L), the English menu also included white and milk chocolate-dipped strawberries!

My first experience with afternoon tea was truly stupendous! Speaking with a faux-British accent and pretending to be lady-like, all while munching on obscenely cute food was a dream. Must do it again soon!


Chè Nhãn

It’s gettin’ hot in HCMC.

The dry-season is in full swing and the days of motorbiking in the rain while donning ponchos is now a distant memory.

Click here to read the full post:

Phạm Nguyên Bakery

At least once a week
Cuisine: Dessert, Bakery

20B Ky Dong Street
District 3, Ho Chi Minh City

Phone: 9351673

Crossand Cheese (5,500 VND)

Banh Xop Jambom Hawai (4,000 VND)

Banh Ngot Dau Xanh (3,500 VND)

Bong Lan Muffim Tao (5,000 VND)

Banh Xop Pateso Bo (4,500 VND)

Banh Mi Crossand (3,000 VND)

Banh Mi Phap (3,500 VND)

Banh Mi Pho Mai Duong (4,000 VND)
Banh Oc Kem (3,500 VND)

The Astronomer: Back in Philly, one of my favorite traditions was walking to Chinatown to visit K.C.’s Pastries, a bakery offering delicious 60¢ sweet or meat-filled buns. When I arrived in Vietnam, I was pleased to discover that the K.C.’s experience was authentic—Asia really does feature numerous bakeries featuring pastries made of the same light, mildly sweet dough. Several large chains dominate the scene in Saigon: the biggest, Kinh Do Bakery, offers a decent selection and flashy advertising, but charges several thousand dong more than its competitors for a nearly identical product. The other two major players in the market, Pham Nguyen Bakery and A Chau Bakery (ABC), have become consistent standbys in my diet.

When I go out to dinner in HCMC, I almost always find that a standard Vietnamese rice or noodle portion is simply not enough food for a growing American boy. Occasionally I order a whole new entrée, drawing bewildered stares from the restaurant owners, but most of the time I head on my way and hope that I’ll find a little something extra on the road home. In these situations, I’m particularly thankful for Pham Nguyen and ABC. Whether I’m in the mood for something sweet or savory, I can always find a snack that will hit the spot for around 4,000 dong (25¢).

Among my favorite offerings are the flaky pastries filled with a thin layer of meat or pate: the exact names vary, but good ones have included banh pateso, banh xop thit, and Banh Xop Jambom Hawai. The dessert selections generally fall into two categories: big and fluffy and not as sweet as they look, or stuffed with mung bean paste or cream. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I haven’t quite bought into the whole beans for desert thing, but I must admit that the mung bean pastries can be pretty delicious. The big sweet ones are also satisfying, but generally all taste the same despite their widely diverse shapes.

One of the greatest disappointments from my numerous visits to Pham Nguyen has been the bong lan muffim tao (apple muffin), which looked quite appealing but tasted nothing like a muffin should. It had a light, springy texture (strangely resembling the rather uncomfortable pillows in our new apartment) and no fruit chunks or discernible apple flavor. This attempt at a muffin provides further evidence for The Gastronomer’s theory that the Vietnamese often emulate Western foods by copying their appearance, without having the slightest idea of how the final product should taste (see hamburgers and ice cream).

Another interesting interpretation of a Western pastry was the banh pho mat (cheese). I expected a melted, creamy filling, but instead found nothing for several bites and then finally a small chunk of mild cheddar resembling a half stick of string cheese.

One day when I was feeling particularly bold, I bought a banh oc, a huge snail-shaped sweet pastry filled with an enormous quantity of cream. As one might expect, it was tasty to start out with, but by the time I finished I wanted to vomit.

There are even stranger offerings with names like banh pizza and banh mi hot dog, with only a vague resemblance to what you might imagine, but so far my desire for a satisfying snack has outweighed my sense of adventure, and I’ve stayed away. The bakeries also offer a selection of fancier cakes topped with elaborate icing and funny-looking animals made of sugar. A review of these will have to wait until The Gastronomer’s birthday in February.


While in Phu Quoc, I procured some Vietnamese tamarind candies called me. It was an impulsive junk food purchase, but that’s what vacations are for. I bought a quarter kilogram for 5,000 VND and pretty much finished them the same day because they’re mighty addictive.

The me‘s exterior is covered in coarse sugar crystals and dried chili flakes. The center contains a glossy seed that easily separates from the edible flesh.

The candy initially registers as sweet, but quickly transitions to spicy. The only way to stop my mouth from burning is to pop in another candy to bring my taste buds back to sweet. I guess that’s how I finish them up so quickly!

If you’re a fan of Mexican tamarind candies like Pelon Pelo Rico, this is definitely up your alley.

Bánh Cam

Oh. Dang. Just look at them…

Bánh rán is a deep-fried glutinous rice ball from northern Vietnamese cuisine. In Vietnamese, bánh means “cake” and rán means “fried.”

Its outer shell is made from glutinous rice flour, and covered all over with white sesame seeds. Its filling is made from sweetened mung bean paste, and scented with jasmine flower Traditionally, the filling should be separated from the shell so that if one shakes the bánh rán, one can feel the filling rattle against the inside of the shell.

Bánh rán is very similar to a Chinese fried glutinous rice ball called zin dou (煎道), which is a standard pastry in Cantonese cuisine and Hong Kong cuisine. The Chinese version is generally slightly sweeter and does not have jasmine essence, and uses fillings such as lotus paste or black bean paste.

In southern Vietnam, a similar dish, called bánh cam, is nearly identical to bánh rán, but does not contain jasmine essence. A further difference is that for bánh cam the filling does not need to be separated from the shell. In Northern Vietnam bánh cam is different from bánh rán as it is traditionally eaten with a sugary syrup that is poured over the pastry.

While The Astronomer does the bulk of the donut eating in our relationship, I do have a few favorites. I first spied the gooey and sweet bánh cam on my morning run down Ton That Thuyet Street in District 4. Even though the donuts looked mighty inviting glistening in the sun, I couldn’t bring myself to eat one mid-run. Aside from the 4 X donut at Swarthmore, donuts and running just don’t go hand in hand.

I tried bánh cam two weeks ago on a Christmas shopping trip in District 5. The donut dealer sold her goods for 2000VND a pop, which I thought was a fine deal until I discovered that the vendors in District 4 only charged 1000VND. Insanity!

The caramelized sugar glaze atop the freshly fried dough is what makes this donut especially delightful. Unlike the light and fluffy trans-fat ridden donuts in America (i.e. Krispy Kremes), these are a bit on the dense side, so eating more than one is too much goodness for one day.