Archive for the 'Restaurant Review' Category



Carbo-Loading

January 13, 2008
Cuisine: Vietnamese

140 Vo Thi Sau Street
District 3, Ho Chi Minh City

Phone: none
Website: none

Mi Xao Don (15,000 VND)

Mi Xao Mem (15,000 VND)

Hu Tieu Xao (15,000 VND)

Located in the same alley as the pho cuon and bun cha joint I visited a month ago, this stall specializes in mi (noodles) and com (rice) dishes prepared in a wok.

Zach, The Astronomer and I ordered every mi dish off the menu with the exception of mi goi xao bo, which is packaged Ramen noodles stir-fried with beef. I don’t doubt that the dish is a fine creation, but it’s a little too “semi-homemade” for me.

The mi xao don was comprised of thin egg noodles dunked in hot oil and fried to a crisp. The nest of crunchy noodles was topped with a saucy mix of liver, beef, squid, bok choy-like greens and garnished with cilantro. The Astronomer thought there was too much liver and not enough of anything else. This preparation was probably my least favorite of the three because I like my noodles soft, but The Astronomer embraced the different textures.

The mi xao mem was your average plate pan fried noodles and dressed with the same saucy mix as the mi xao dong. The noodles were too soft and as a result, lacked the bite-factor that I want in my pan fried noodles. See: Ting Wong in Philadelphia.

My favorite of the three was the hu tieu xao. Wide rice noodles seared in garlic and topped with the ubiquitous saucy mix. Whereas the mi xao don was too crunchy and the mi xao mem was too soft, the hu tieu xao was baby bear.

These alleyway noodles were good, but not great. In a city full of greatness, I most likely won’t be back for more.

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Opera

January 11, 2008
Cuisine: Italian

2 Lam Son Square
District 1, Ho Chi Minh City

Phone: 824-1234
Website: none

White bread with creamy pesto and olive oil (complimentary)

Duck Carpaccio ($12)

Bucatinni, Sardines, Dill, Pine Nuts, Raisins ($9)

Rigatoni, Basil, Mint, Eggplant, Swordfish ($10)

Banana Tart with Caramel ($8)

As part of my holiday present from The Astronomer, I was treated to an Italian dinner at Opera. The restaurant is located inside the Park Hyatt Saigon, which is the swankiest hotel in town. How swanky? When Brad and Angelina are in the adopting mood, they always stay at the Hyatt.

We had reservations at 6 PM last Friday night and were seated immediately upon our arrival. Our table was covered in a white tablecloth and had a nice view of the open kitchen, which featured a wood-fired oven.

The best part of the open kitchen experience was hearing the cooks Vietnamese-ize Italian words like arugula (“a roo goo la”—four words) and bucatini (“boo ca ti ni”—four words). It reminded me of how my family Vietnamese-izes American words like apartment (“a pag toe mang”—four words). It’s good to know that mono-syllabic languages can adapt to multi-syllabic ones!

Our waitress didn’t hover over our shoulders as we perused the menu, which was a novel experience for The Astronomer who hasn’t been back stateside since last September.

After we placed our orders, we were served bread with a pesto and olive oil dip. The bread, which was warmed-up in the wood-fired oven, was toasty on the outside and fluffy on the inside. Unlike Vietnamese baguettes, this bread had plenty of soft innards for me to dig into. It had been forever since The Astronomer experienced pre-dinner bread and pesto; he was totally in heaven.

For our appetizer, we shared the Duck Carpaccio, which was served with a mesclun mix dressed in olive oil and vinegar, black pepper and goat cheese. The salad was, you know, a salad. The carpaccio, on the other hand, was fabulously executed and melt-in-your mouth tender. The strong essence of duck really rocked our taste buds.

For our entrees, we shared two pastas. My favorite of the evening was the rigatoni with basil, eggplant and swordfish. The menu claimed there was mint in this dish, but neither The Astronomer or I could taste it. I was thrilled that the pasta (DeCecco) was prepared al dente. The hunks of eggplant and swordfish went perfectly well with the rigatoni. I usually find swordfish dry and steak-like, but these cuts were quite moist.

The Astronomer’s favorite was the bucatinni with sardines, dill, pine nuts and raisins. The dill and sardines were the stars of this dish, while the nuts and raisins played second and third fiddle. The Astronomer liked the unique combination of flavors, and found the dish light, yet satisfying. I thought that the dill was overwhelming, but the chunky sardine and tomato sauce was excellent.

For dessert, I chose a “banana tart.” What arrived was a cheesecake topped with sliced bananas and a nutty ice cream. Candied hazelnuts and a caramel-y sauce garnished the plate. The cheesecake was mild and creamy and had a killer graham crust, but not what I was in the mood for. I wanted a buttery tart filled with caramelized bananas and topped with an extra-rich caramel sauce.

Dinner at Opera was a wonderful escape from the Saigon grind and I hope to return again to try their wood-fired pizzas and more of their pastas.

Phạm Nguyên Bakery

At least once a week
Cuisine: Dessert, Bakery

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

Phone: 9351673
Website: http://www.phamnguyenfood.com

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.

Bánh Tráng Phơi Sương

Although you’d never guess from my gastronomic adventures documented here, I am actually a creature of habit when it comes to everyday eating. I have a handful of lunchtime favorites that I could rotate through indefinitely without getting bored to tears, so it’s usually at the suggestion of The Astronomer that I try something new.

I had never heard of bánh tráng phơi sương until last week, when The Astronomer read about it on Pieman‘s site. In fact, Graham declared it his “favourite southern Vietnamese dish.” We headed over to Hoang Ty Restaurant (459-461 Cach Mang Thang Tam Street, District 10) to experience the glory that is “rice pancake exposed in the dew (at night)” for ourselves.

Bánh tráng phơi sương, like a lot of Vietnamese dishes, is a DIY roll and dip number. It is comprised of seven distinct parts: greens/herbs, pickled carrots, daikon and leeks, bun (vermicelli rice noodles), slices of boiled pork, fresh bean sprouts, cucumbers and peppercorns, rice paper and nuoc cham. Hoang Ty had a special of sorts going on during our visit, so we received a complimentary plate of cha (pork forcemeat) with our lunch. Score!

I started with a sheet of especially rustic rice paper, tucked in some greens and herbs, piled on pieces of boiled pork (I prefer to double up), bundled up some noodles and lastly, added fresh and pickled vegetables. Although the rice paper looked delicate, it was actually quite a champ when it came time to roll. Dipped in a bit of nuoc cham, the bánh tráng phơi sương was very reminiscent of goi cuon (spring rolls) minus the hoisin suace.

The Astronomer appreciated the DIY aspect of this dish; being able to choose the exact ratio of meats, herbs, vegetables and greens suited him well. However, he was disappointed that the majority of the greens/herbs tasted a lot less exciting than they looked. Overall, The Astronomer thought that bánh tráng phơi sương was a fun eating experience, but an entire meal of it was a bit monotonous. For me, bánh tráng phơi sương was too mild. I prefer my pork with some punch, if you know what I mean.

Cơm Niêu Sài Gòn

January 9, 2008
Cuisine: Vietnamese

6C Tu Xuong Street
District 3, Ho Chi Minh City

Phone: 820-3188
Website: none

Sugar Apple smoothie, Pepsi (Tet edition)

Crab and Asparagus Soup (20,000 VND)

Squid Stuffed with Meat (55,000 VND)

Thit Kho Nuoc Dua (40,000 VND)

Rau Muong Xao Toi (30,000 VND)

Com Dap (20,000 VND)

Mi Xao Mem Hai San (50,000 VND)

Back in July when The Astronomer and I first arrived in Saigon, my aunt and uncle took us to Cơm Niêu Sài Gòn for dinner. Since we were guests, we left the ordering up to our hosts. Our meal was fairly unmemorable because their selections didn’t exactly suit our tastes.

Since our first visit, I read an interview with Anthony Bourdain in The Guardian where he proclaimed Cơm Niêu Sài Gòn as “the one place visitors shouldn’t miss” –

Com Nieu Sai Gon, a restaurant run by the impressive Madame Ngoc, is my favorite place in town. Everything is good – and travelers who’ve followed up on my recommendation to eat there never return unsatisfied. They specialize in clay-pot-baked rice which, after shattering the crockery, they spin, sizzling hot, through the air over the heads of the customers then dress with sauce and scallions. Always my best meal in Saigon. Just order “everything” and eat yourself silly.

I’m on the fence about Bourdain in general, but he convinced me to give Cơm Niêu Sài Gòn a second go. The Astronomer and I, along with our friends Thomas and Zach, returned last week to eat ourselves silly, or something like that.

For the past month, the restaurant has been operating in a refurbished space behind the original Cơm Niêu Sài Gòn. The new digs are seriously beautiful—dark wood, subtle decor, exposed brick walls and comfy chairs. Easily the most well-designed space I’ve seen in all of Saigon. With such a gorgeous interior, we had high expectations for the eats to come.

Zach and Tom started off with the crab and asparagus soup, which they both thought was done well. I find this style of soup a little too gelatinous and mild.

The squid stuffed with meat arrived next. We were expecting something like this, but instead we received chicken taquitos cut into small pieces. Whatta let down! The kitchen should have focused on the entree rather than the garnish. Who needs blossoming carrot and turnip flowers when the actual dish sucks? It’s as if they made these little doodads to distract diners. This was far and away the worst thing I have eaten in the country.

After a rough start, our remaining selections were all executed well. However, like our first experience, nothing was truly memorable. The thit kho was under-seasoned and lacking in the thit department. The morning glory sauteed in garlic was fine, but any fool can execute this dish. I must admit that the com dap was delicious with its combination of scallion oil, nuoc mam and sesame seeds over crispy rice. The seafood pan-fried noodles were good as well, with a fair ratio of protein to carbohydrates.

Cơm Niêu Sài Gòn is the perfect eatery for those squeamish about street food or in dire need of AC and pretty surroundings. I think Zach summed it best when he said, “I’d go here again, but only with my parents to pick up the bill.” Agreed.