Archive for the 'Restaurant Review' Category

Eating Mice Can Be Rather Nice

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February 20, 2008
Cuisine: Vietnamese

146 Ha Ba Trung Street
District 1, Ho Chi Minh City

Phone: 8228510
Website: none


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There are some very interesting meats available for consumption in South East Asia. I’ve seen bugs, ostriches, dogs, snakes, bats and even cats for sale. While I draw the line at domesticated animals and insects, I’ll pretty much eat everything else, just as long as it was prepared with love, looks appetizing, and smells good.

With the year of the rat in full swing, a group of friends and I recently ventured outside our comfort zones to try a Mekong Delta specialty—mouse.

The breed of mice served up in local restaurants are not native to the city and are in fact from the countryside. These mice resided in rice fields and feasted on whole grains prior to meeting their makers. If this were America, the words “grain-fed” and “organic” would be touted on the restaurant menus serving up these little guys.

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The mice at Huong Rung 2 restaurant are available in two preparations—ro ti (top) and quay (bottom). We ordered one of each to truly get a sense of the range of flavors mice can achieve. The quay mice arrived first. Two chuot quay—barbecued mice—set us back 60,000 VND. Upon their arrival, we scoffed at their scrawniness. Compared to the large fillets and drumsticks we’re accustomed to eating, these looked like beef jerky. At first bite, I found the barbecued mouse decent, but too bony to really dig into. Sometimes I took too large of a bite and chipped off and swallowed some bone, but it was no big deal because mice have really brittle bones.

Everyone agreed that the chuot roti (30,000 VND) preparations were much tastier than the barbecued. Dressed up in a glossy five-spice sauce with hunks of roasted garlic, the mice tasted surprisingly good. Even though the savory sauce didn’t add anymore meat onto the mice’s bones, it enhanced their overall flavor. However, to be honest, just about any creature doused in a garlicky five-spice sauce would be tasty.

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The Little Red Dot

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February 18, 2008
Cuisine: Singaporean

21 Tu Xuong Street
District 3, Ho Chi Minh City

Phone: 9325123
Website: none

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Mi Phuc Kien – Singaporean stir fried noodles with egg, pork, squid and chives (38,000 VND)

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Heo quay, xa xieu – plain BBQ pork and sweet BBQ pork (40,000 VND)

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Hainanese chicken (40,00 VND)

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Hainanese rice

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Soy sauce, chili paste, ground ginger sauce, chili sauce

I was watching No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain a few weeks back when I learned about a Singaporean sensation by the name of Hainese chicken rice. Chicken has never really appealed to me because I find that regardless of the preparation, the chicken usually just ends up tasting like chicken. Yawn… Pork, on the other hand, takes on flavors well and can be prepared a zillion unique ways—sausage, ham, bacon, loaf, etc. Hence, it is my favorite.

Even with my general lack of enthusiasm for chicken, Bourdain’s segment was so damn convincing that I sought out chicken rice for lunch that very day. Talk about the power of the tube!

The Astronomer had previously read about The Little Red Dot in an expat magazine, which boasted that the Singaporean-Vietnamese owners dished out great chicken rice. With Lush in tow, we headed to the eatery to taste the subtle goodness that is chicken rice.

According to Bourdain, chicken rice is made by boiling a chicken in ginger and other aromatics. Once the bird is thoroughly cooked, it is dunked into a large pot of ice cold water to congeal the fat and keep the meat moist. The rice is made from the resulting chicken broth, along with garlic and sesame oil.

The Little Red Dot’s version of chicken rice was everything Bourdain said it would be, minus the plethora of delectable sauces he had on hand in Singapore. I found all of the condiments available (chili sauce, soy sauce, chili paste and ground ginger sauce) flat and unspectacular; most likely because I didn’t know how to use them properly. The room temperature chicken was better off eaten without adornments on this visit. The Astronomer, Lush and I adored the fluffy rice with its faint notes of ginger and garlic.

The BBQ pork platter came with some rice as well. The heo quay’s crispy skin and centimeter of fat was quite good, while the sweet xa xieu was my favorite of the afternoon—candied pork. The Singaporean noodle dish, which was a touch heavy on the gravy, tasted thick and comforting.

This was a decent initial introduction to Singaporean cuisine and I am excited to delve further. Aside from chicken rice, what are Singapore’s signature dishes?

Seafood a la Sidewalk

February 15, 2008
Cuisine: Vietnamese, Seafood

Ton That Thuyet Street
District 4, Ho Chi Minh City

Phone: none
Website: none

Fruits of the Sea – clockwise from top left – condiments for dipping, blood cockles sauteed in tamarind, grilled mussels, clams sauteed in garlic (25,000 VND per dish)

My friend Luscious loves food with a passion, so I’m working overtime to introduce her to the very best of Vietnamese cuisine during her month-long stay.

We’ve had lots of great food thus far, but the one eatery that made her squeal with utter delight was the seafood shack we stumbled into in District 4.

The blood cockles smothered in sweet and tangy tamarind sauce knocked our socks off. There were definitely numerous oohs and ahs as we hungrily dug into the plate. The Astronomer bought some baguettes from the vendor down the street to sop up the divine sauce because it’s criminal to discard something so perfect.

The clams with garlic were also finger lickin’ good! What’s there not to love about tender clams dressed in hunks of sweet garlic? These morsels were not as intense as the cockles, but truly just as tasty.

Our last course of the evening were the grilled mussels. I find it rather funny that chem chép nướng means exactly the same thing from seafood shack to seafood shack—grilled mussels topped with scallion oil and crushed peanuts. Where’s the creativity? The grilled mussels tasted just like they did at previous sidewalk seafood eateries; smoky, crunchy and yummy.

We walked back to the apartment with greasy lips and happy bellies.

Meric

February 9, 2008
Cuisine: Cambodian, Asian Fusion

Sivutha Boulevard
Siem Reap, Cambodia

Phone: 855 63 966 000
Website: www.hoteldelapaixangkor.com/meric.php

Course I: Pomelo and grilled pork salad

Course II: Grilled chicken and yam bean salad

Course III: Grilled beef skewer with green papaya salad

Khmer organic white rice

Course IV: Bar fish and eggplant with coconut milk soup

Course V: Stir-fried calamari with Khmer curry and peanut

Course VI: Braised beef shank with palm sugar and star anise

Course VII: Assorted Khmer sweets

Birthday “cake”

I celebrated the big 2-6 climbing on ancient temples around Angkor Wat and enjoying a luxe dinner afterwards at Meric. I would normally skip swanky joints for homelier ones, but since it was my birthday, I had to live it up. Plus, Conde Nast Traveler named Meric one of their Hot Tables in 2006:

Named after a type of pepper grown in the Kampot region of Cambodia, this slick dining room at the trendiest new property in Siem Reap, the Hôtel de la Paix, has immediately become the boom town’s best table. New Zealand native Paul Hutt, one of the most inventive chefs in Southeast Asia, moved here from the Shinta Mani Hotel, and if his menu there was brilliant, here he’s really hit his stride. Think Khmer cooking for the twenty-first century, which is to say regional dishes made with local produce and given a high-shine Pacific Rim gloss. “What I love about Cambodia is the incredible freshness of the ingredients and the subtlety of Khmer cooking, a very misunderstood Asian cuisine,” says Hutt. His menu evolves constantly; among the latest dishes were steamed maan (fermented fish) with Khmer crudités, lake krill from nearby Tonle Sap, a salad of ambarella (between a quince and a crab apple), and stir-fried frog with basil (entrées, $18–$22).

Our entire party of six ordered the Khmer tasting menu—a seven course Cambodian feast priced at $28. The presentation at Meric is really something special, every course was served on slabs of stone and garnished with banana leaves.

The first course was a large spoonful of pomelo and grilled pork salad. We weren’t sure whether to eat it in one bite or to make it last by using additional silverware. The salad was very similar to the pomelo salad I had in Da Nang at Buddha Bay, minus the squid. From the fried shallots to the pork slivers to the fish sauce-based dressing, the salad was more or less a Vietnamese goi.

The grilled chicken and yam bean salad came next. The yam beans, also known as jicama, created a crunchy and refreshing base. The chicken was shredded and simple, while the herbs shined through.

The grilled beef skewer with green papaya salad served with Khmer organic white rice was a crowd pleaser. The beef was marinated in lemongrass and tasted smoky from the grill. The pickled green papaya salad contrasted well with the fatty beef. The white rice was the finest jasmine I’ve eaten in all of South East Asia.

The bar fish and eggplant with coconut milk soup was lovely as well. The fish’s texture was sturdy like chicken, while the eggplants were nice and tender. The coconut milk brought about a milder and creamier curry soup.

The stir-fried calamari with Khmer curry and peanuts was probably the least memorable of the dishes due to its lack of oomph. Diced green peppers and peanuts can only take a dish so far. According to the chef, this dish isn’t purely Cambodian. While the Khmer do eat squid, it’s usually grilled and not stir-fried.

My favorite course of the evening was the braised beef shank with palm sugar and star anise. Reminiscent of Vietnamese bo kho, this rich and savory stew was brimming with moist pieces of beef and richly flavored with star anise. The yolk from the hard-boiled egg soaked up the salty broth, creating an orb of deliciousness.

For our final course, we were presented with an assortment of Khmer sweets including a banana cake, a sticky rice cake topped with custard, and a shot glass filled with sticky rice with black eyed peas and coconut milk. The cakes were served with a caramel-y palm sugar sauce that seduced me completely. My favorite combo was the banana cake dipped in the palm sugar sauce—caramel and bananas go hand in hand.

Ngự Viên

Ngự Viên—take three.

Slowly, but surely, we’re gonna eat our way through Ngự Viên’s extensive, Hue-inspired menu. Read about our first account here and our second one here.

Cathy’s mom was in town a few weeks back for the Tet holiday and desired traditional Vietnamese rice dishes for lunch. After little debate, Zach, The Astronomer and I decided that Ngự Viên would be the perfect place to satisfy her craving.

We ordered two of our standbys (ca hu kho and goi mit) and tried four new dishes—clockwise from top left: hen xao (54,000 VND), chao tom (30,000 VND each), bo xoi xao toi (21,000 VND), and canh chua tien (48,000 VND).

Like all standbys ought to be, the ca kho and goi mit were superb. By the way, the best way to distinguish a good ca kho from a great one is the uncontrollable desire to sop up every last bit of caramelized goodness with rice once the fish has disappeared. Mmm, boy!

Of the new dishes, the canh chua tien was a true standout. While the most common version of canh chua (sour soup) is mildly tangy and heavy on pineapples, this version was spicy and contained thin slices of rough bamboo shoots. The soup’s fiery hotness came courtesy of some strong chili powder that really hit the back of my throat.

The hen xao—small clams sauteed with glass noodles and herbs—were served with sesame rice crackers as an appetizer. Perhaps a little too similar to goi mit to be eaten side-by-side, the hen xao was tasty nevertheless.

The chao tom—grilled shrimp paste wrapped around sugarcane—took a good 45 minutes to arrive because Ngự Viên makes them from scratch.  Fair enough, but our waiter insisted on coursing the meal with the slowpoke dish second.  As a result, we spent over half an hour staring at an empty table after polishing off our appetizers. Timing aside, the chao tom were definitely good. However, at 30,000 each, they were not worth the price or wait.

Cathy desired some greenery and ordered the bo xoi xao toi. None of us knew what bo xoi was and our waiter could not provide any insight. The leafy greens tasted like a cross between morning glory, spinach, and bok choy and were slightly bitter. Sauteed in copious cloves of garlic and oil, the mysterious bo xoi served its purpose well.

Bún Chả Hà Nội

Firstly, hats off to Wandering Chopsticks for pointing me to this awesome bun cha joint on Ly Tu Trong Street. I hardly ever eat in District 1 unless its fancy or sushi and would have never found this place otherwise.

A group of new (Olivia) and old friends (The Astronomer, Zach and Tom) headed here for lunch right before the Lunar New Year shutdown, which is unfortunately still going on. The Vietnamese sure do know how to relax after a year of hard work! I hope my xoi vendors start dishing out the goods soon.

During our visit, the eatery was sold out of the cha gio cua be (crab eggrolls) WC raved about, but the manager promised me a complimentary one the next time I stopped in.

Our group ordered five portions of bun cha at 25,000 VND each. Generally, I find that bun cha portions veer toward meager, especially in the bun (vermicelli rice noodles) department. The Astronomer usually has to request two extra plates of bun to round out his meal. This restaurant served up the perfect amount of food.

The flame-grilled pork patties with bacon bits (not Bacos) were dunked in a mild fish sauce vinaigrette with thin slices of pickled daikon. The smoky patties were packed loosely, contained a satisfying ratio of meat to fat and took on the sauce’s sour flavors well. Truly, excellent. I can’t wait to compare and contrast bun cha Saigon with bun cha Hanoi when I visit later this year.

Since I’m in the south, I assembled my bun cha in a southern fashion—small bowl + herbs + greens + meat + sauce. Definitely the best I’ve had so far.

8 Ly Tu Trong Street
District 1, Ho Chi Minh City

One Broth, Two Dishes

January 29, 2008
Cuisine: Vietnamese

193 Ly Chinh Thang Street
District 3, Ho Chi Minh City

Phone: none
Website: none

Canh Bun (8,000 VND)

Bun Rieu (8,000 VND)

Chao Muc (5,000 VND)

Ca Phe Sua Da (5,000 VND)

Another day, another new noodle soup to try!

The Astronomer, our pal Cathy and I lunched at a not-so-pretty eatery on Ly Chinh Thang Street advertising canh bun, bun rieu and chao muc. We ordered one of each for variety’s sake, but I was particularly interested in the canh bun because I have never tried it before.

Canh is a light Vietnamese soup eaten with rice, while bun are vermicelli rice noodles. Surprisingly, canh bun is not a combination of the two. Tricky, huh?

It turns out that canh bun is exactly the same as bun rieu (vermicelli noodles in a sour crab-based broth) with the addition of blanched spinach served alongside the essential herbs and greens. Not the most innovative dish, but I can find no fault in extra nutrients and fiber. Anything for 5-a-day.

The bun rieu here was very good. Unlike my family’s version or the one at Thanh Hai, this one came with spongy squares of deep-fried tofu that soaked up the sour broth nicely and contained cubes of blood jello that are much tastier than they look.

The chao muc was my personal favorite of the meal. The smoky squid porridge was topped with ground black pepper, chopped scallions and pieces of fried dough. Similar to the tofu in the bun rieu, the fried dough soaked up the porridge with its oily goodness. There were several pieces of actual squid, but they blended in with the hot porridge.

After three steamy dishes, we headed to a drink vendor several blocks down for some ca phe sua da (Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk on ice). Although I usually passed on this stuff back home, I am officially a huge fan. What’s there not to like about drinking melted coffee ice cream? I have seen the light.