Monday, February 19, 2007

Travel Dish: Manna (Vietnam)

This is the seventh in a special series of food reports from my recent trip to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Return every Sunday and Monday for the latest postings.
Discovering the club scene on a lazy afternoon
26 Ho Huan Nghiep, District 1
PH: (84-8) 823-3978
Major credit cards accepted; tax and service charges

Saigon/HCMC, the largest city in Vietnam, has an emerging night life that might not rival Shanghai but definitely keeps this city rocking into the early morning. But I’m going to be honest with you and say that I didn’t witness this first-hand. Most of my evenings were filled with a nice dinner at a local restaurant, a casual walk back to my hotel, an hour watching the Asia version of “The Amazing Race” and then bed.

Still, that doesn’t mean I didn’t try to check out what was hip. All for you!

One of these places is Manna, a champagne and wine lounge off of Dong Khoi, the popular tourist street in the city. One hot and humid afternoon (which day wasn’t?), I was strolling on Dong Khoi, perusing the souvenir shops and art galleries, looking over countless paintings of Vietnamese women in straw hats and flowing white dresses and seeing how many different items they can make with lacquer. Frog paperweight, anyone?

Then in a moment of exhaustion, I looked up and there like manna from Heaven was the glittery gold sign of Manna. The second-floor restaurant/club has an indiscreet entrance that you might miss if you weren’t looking for it. As I walked past the guard/bouncer (he smiled at me happy to have a visitor in the afternoon) and up the steps lined with lit tea candles, I walked into the stylish interiors of Manna. Other than the staff, there was a couple of Japanese tourists enjoying a drink at a table near the window.

I took a seat near the flat-screen TV, which was showing a Harrison Ford movie with a very young Brad Pitt and Treat Williams. (A Google search later identified this as possibly “The Devil’s Own,” a 1998 film about a young IRA assassin—Pitt—who comes to live with an American family—Ford.) In the background, the music of contemporary Asian bands covering songs from the 80s played on.

Looking over the menu, Manna offered a mix of Westernized and Vietnamese dishes. The prices were slightly higher than some of the other restaurants I tried, and this was one of the few places where they actually charged a tax along with a service charge on your bill.

Since it was too early for dinner, I decided to have afternoon tea. I ordered a pot of Vietnamese jasmine tea and the Warm Pineapple Cake with Banana Ice Cream from the dessert menu.

I should note that even though I was the only customer, the service was excellent as if it was prime dinner service. I’ve been to restaurants where they’ve just opened or are still preparing for dinner and they seem bothered that they have to deal with you. I didn’t feel that here. It didn’t seem what hour of the day, they were ready to serve.

My pineapple cake came with my tea. The Vietnamese jasmine tea was slightly lighter and greener in taste than regular jasmine tea from China, and it was a relaxing complement to the amazing pineapple cake. OK, I kind of buried the lead because I should have led off raving about this wonderfully warm piece of heaven on a big white plate.
The cake had the distinct taste of pineapple, with its sweetness subdued by the warmth and fluffiness of the cake itself. Each moist bite transported me to my childhood smelling freshly baked cakes from Chinese bakeries in Chinatown. The only element that brought my feet back to Earth was the accompanying banana ice cream. I hardly tasted a banana flavor; instead it was more like vanilla ice cream but with bits of ice ruining the smooth texture.

Still, even poorly made ice cream didn’t detract from this wonderful cake. As I sat sipping my tea in the air-conditioned lounge, I plotted future trips where I would come back simply just to have this dessert from Manna. I hope I’m not overselling it, but have you ever cried because you ate something just sooo transcendent? I mean. A river. Right here.

My total bill for this fantastic afternoon escape was D83,000 (or $5.18) and most of that was the tax and service charge. I would have gladly paid double (which is what I probably would have paid in the United States) for that pineapple cake.

Manna, with its hip interior and live jazz music from 9 p.m. to midnight, is also a serene escape from the afternoon heat as you sit on the second floor overlooking the other tourists strolling below on Dong Khoi. And yes, order the Warm Pineapple Cake.

Single guy rating: 3.25 stars (overall); 4.5 stars (just for the warm pineapple cake)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Postscript Saigon: Taxi that hails you
In Saigon/HCMC, even though it's the biggest city in the country, it does not have a subway system like other big cities I've traveled to (London, Paris, Barcelona, etc.). It does have a bus system, but there are very few buses in the main city corridor. Instead, most people travel by motorbike, which numbers more than 10 million. So other than hitting the streets on foot (which is practical but tiring sometimes in the heat), an alternative form of transportation is a taxi.

Taxis are generally parked in front of most hotels, but you should only catch taxis that are clearly marked with a well-known company such as Saigon Tourist or Vinasun. Others may not be as reliable. What does that mean? It means possibly a meter that hikes up in price near the end of a trip or constant harassment from the driver trying to convince you to take his "hour" tour of the city.

In New York, you have to hail a taxi. In Saigon, the taxi hails you. When you're walking around, you'll hear taxis honking at you. They're not telling you to get out of the way. They're honking to get your attention to see if you need a ride.

NOTE: When leaving the airport, there's a taxi counter before you head out of baggage claim. They'll charge you a flat fee of $5 (yes, they'll take U.S. dollars) to take you to most hotels in District 1. Take the receipt they hand you and head out to the outside and show it to the guy in front of the taxi line. Be sure to hold on to your receipt so the driver will know that you've prepaid.

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