Sunday, February 25, 2007

Travel Dish: Temple Club (Vietnam)

This is the eighth 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.Transport Yourself to Old Colonial Vietnam
29-31 Ton That Thiep, District 1
PH: (84.8) 829.9244
Major credit cards accepted; 10% service charge

If you ever want to feel like the Imperial Foreigner when visiting Vietnam, just walk the tiny street of Ton That Thiep that boasts the trendiest block in Saigon. A handful of fancy galleries and furniture stores (which list prices for all their products for sale in U.S. dollars) fill just one block of this short street not too far from the major hotels.

The street’s anchor and star of all that is trendy is the Temple Club, a fine dining restaurant and bar. (It’s situated right across from a Hindu temple, but I’m not sure if that was the inspiration for the name.) The Temple Club is popular among tourists and expats, and last November played host to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who were passing through from Cambodia. (Turns out the famous stars/parents were actually visiting Vietnam to find their next international adoptee, according to latest news reports.)

Situated in an old Colonial building painted burnt yellow outside, the Temple Club transports you to the days when Vietnam was part of Indochine, the French colonial empire of Southeast Asia. The exposed brick walls frame the stylish décor of lacquered wood, faint paintings and colorful lamp shades. Even the silverware was a brushed antique metal that weighed heavily on my California liberal guilt.

It was clear that the Temple Club, with its white table cloths and impeccably dressed servers, would be one of my more expensive dinners in Saigon. Most entrees ranged from D80,000 to D125,000 ($5-$7.80), which was often the total cost of dinner at other places I visited earlier in my trip.

Seated in the enclosed patio overlooking Ton That Thiep, I started my evening with the Young Lotus Stems with Prawns and Pork salad. It had the ubiquitous light fish sauce dressing found on most salads. The lotus stems were light and crisp, like thinly sliced young celery hearts. The nice-sized salad was rounded off with peanuts, prawns, pressed pork, carrots and herbs.
For my main course, I ordered the Bac Po Style Grilled Pork and a side of Steamed Young Cabbage Cholon Style. Now, for a restaurant that caters to tourists, several of the servers had difficulty with the English language. They can understand your orders, but had difficulty taking it a step further if you wanted an explanation of a particular dish. This is why I didn’t really know what to expect with the Bac Po-style pork. (I later learned that Bac Po is the Northern region of Vietnam.)

The grilled pork turned out to be tiny spareribs that were tasty but a bit tough to eat. Still, the sauce carried the essence of star anise and lemongrass in a caramelized sauce. My side of vegetables was a simple dish of baby mustard greens with oyster sauce.
For dessert, the Temple Club offers several typical items like crème brulee and sweet soups. I was tempted by the Homemade Hue Cake with Secret Sauce. (My server nodded in agreement when I ordered it.) Hue is a region in central Vietnam that’s known for its fine cuisine, so I wanted to see what this dessert was all about.

The cake was made from sticky rice flour. Because of that, it was dense but warm and sweet. The “secret sauce” was a pale green puree that had a mild flavor, bordering on being bland. My guess was mung bean.

Overall, it was an elegant evening filled with people watching and tasty morsels. My total bill (including a couple of drinks and a 10 percent service charge for gratuity—the highest fee I experienced at any Vietnamese restaurant) was D396,000 (or $25). If you feel that’s a lot to spend on one dinner in Saigon, then you should at least go to the Temple Club for a drink. It’s definitely a place to capture the romance of Saigon’s past in a modern setting.

Single guy rating: 3.5 stars (perfect for foodie travelers with an expense account)

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: Not Colonial, but a Colonel
Traveling as an American, I’ve come to learn that capitalism reaches out to all parts of the world, even in communist states like Vietnam. Whether it’s the golden arches or Starbucks, you can’t escape American consumerism.

In Saigon, I discovered that the favorite American import is the Colonel. Of all the various fast-food joints around town, it’s KFC that seems to be popular with the locals. (I think I maybe saw just one McDonald’s compared to the many KFCs.) Even in this country troubled by the Avian bird flu, people were still willing to buy a bucket of fried chicken with the Colonel’s secret recipe.

I never resorted to eating at KFC (not that I’m against it since I do eat it back home now and then) so I can’t say how different it might be in Vietnam compared to the states. But a tourist I met from Canada raved about how the chicken was more succulent than what she experienced back home. For me, I’d rather have pho.


Anonymous said...

In mid 2009 still no "Golden Arches" in Vietnam but there are now at least two Pizza Huts.

Lotteria is the hamburger chain in VN but I haven't had the desire to try their burger. Every report I have heard says they are not very good, or worse...

Temple Club continues to be fabulous and very reasonably priced, considering...

Anonymous said...

actually all the food looks delicious, I would love to try it!

Anonymous said...