Monday, March 19, 2007

Travel Dish: Nam Phan (Vietnam)

This is my 15th and last post about my food adventures in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Yes, after two months of blogging, we come to my final meal in the city. If you want to catch up on my previous posts, just check my archives under the Travel labels. Final Meal—Time to Splurge!
64 Le Thanh Ton, District 1
Ph: (84-8) 829-2757
Major credit cards accepted; 5% service charge, additional taxes

After nearly 10 days of spending just $5 to $7 for dinner, I decided to treat myself to a grand dining experience on my last night in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City. I toyed with the idea of eating at a French restaurant because the French cooking style is reportedly still remarkable in this former French colony. But I scratched that idea when I thought of having to wear a tie or suit to dinner in my still very hot-and-humid state of being.

So that brought me to Nam Phan, this classic Vietnamese restaurant with a sophisticated flair. I’d read about Nam Phan prior to arriving in Saigon, and ran into it by accident one day while walking around the tourist area in District 1. The exterior is relatively simple—almost like a guarded wall to a secret garden inside—but you quickly see the restaurant’s name in lights and several large posters with beautifully photographed dishes. So I made a mental note and returned on my last night.

I first walked into the courtyard filled with bamboo trees strung up with Christmas lights. I half expected to see a karaoke singer nearby. The hostess asked if I wanted to sit outside but I explained to her my 10 days of battling the humidity and asked for a table inside.

You walk past the bar that looks like a chic club with dim lighting upstairs to the formal dining room. It was an elegant area that could easily compete with any fine dining French restaurant. Unfortunately for me, it had the attitude as well. Another server (not the hostess who showed me to the table) asked if I had reservations after giving me the once-over, and when I told him I didn’t, he disappeared and a minute later the hostess returned to escort me out to the courtyard. (By the way, the inside dining room was totally empty. Isn’t that always the case?)

Now seated outside with the city traffic honking out loud, I tried to transcend myself by focusing on the babbling man-made water pond nearby and focused on the menu. Just looking at the prices (ranging from D70,0000 to D235,000 or $4.35 to $14.60) made me fondly recap my previous dinners where all my meals cost about the price of one entrée at Nam Phan.

Still, it was my final meal (and probably a good transition back to the reality of Bay Area pricing). So I ordered the Asparagus and Crab Meat Soup (D70,000 or $4.35), Stewed Bellyfish in Pineapple (D105,000 or $6.56) and Grilled Duck Breast with Orange Sauce. (I was ready to eat some poultry after spending my whole trip avoiding chicken or other poultry because of reports of another bird flu death nearby.) Turned out they were out of the duck in orange sauce so I ordered Grilled Duck Breast with Five Tastes (D130,000 or $8.15) as my backup.

The soup is a traditional offering in Vietnam—a clear broth soup with crab meat and diced white asparagus spears. It was enjoyable. The crab was succulent and the asparagus was tender. A sprig of cilantro added the freshness found in all Vietnamese cooking. (I’m going to try to make this soup back home but puree the asparagus instead of just dicing it, making a creamy base instead. Oooh, I’m so radical, I know!)

Then came my two main dishes. The fish came in a claypot (I don’t know why, but for some reason I pictured it coming out in a pineapple boat) and my grilled duck looked tempting fanned out on a platter. I got some steamed rice and was ready to eat.
The fish was perfectly cook, like biting into soft pillows of sweet and sour goodness. Ironically, I didn’t see any bits of pineapple (after being disappointed that it wasn’t served in half a pineapple) despite the dish being called Stewed Bellyfish in Pineapple, or Ca Bong Lau Kho To. I guess it was just stewed in pineapple juice.

My duck was tender but during the whole time I was eating the pieces, I kept thinking, am I eating beef? Did they confuse my order and thought I ordered beef when I wanted duck? The duck meat didn’t have that familiar slightly rear redness of duck or the dark coloring. It was tender and tasted like well-cooked Mongolian beef. And I didn’t taste a variety of spices to create the five tastes. I just had one taste, albeit a good one. It was filling but far from tantalizing.

By the end of the meal, I was ready to leave with just a passing look at the dessert menu. (They had the typical sweet soups, baked apple pie and crème caramel.) While the execution of the dishes was spot on, they hardly pushed the nouveau lines like the restaurant posters’ claimed.

When my bill arrived, I was charged a service charge (5%) and some weird local tax (10%) that none of the other restaurants I ate in during my trip ever charged me. My total came out to D433,125 (or $27), easily the highest amount I paid for dinner for my entire trip. It's a decent tab for the United States but scandalous in Vietnam. I walked back to my hotel in the night and was jealous of all the diners sitting on plastic stools eating from street vendors.

Single guy rating: 3.5 stars (perfect for foodies looking for a luxury touch)

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: My Plate is Too Full
I didn’t get a chance to write about all my eating adventures in Saigon/HCMC. I stuck with mostly the high points. Below is a quick look at some of my other meals, some hits and some misses, that rounded out my Vietnam culinary experience.
Singapore Fried Noodles at Kim Café, 270 De Tham, District 1 (near the so-called "backpackers district" because of the many youth hostels nearby). I ate at this café because it also has a travel agency right next door where I arranged my tour of the Mekong Delta. This place was like a dive, but the food was clean, hearty and cheap. This noodle dish, of course, is not Vietnamese but a traditional Singaporean dish that I order often back home. The base is thin vermicelli rice noodles and it’s often served with eggs and shrimp in a curry base. It was filling!
Seasoned Cold Noodles at Nha Hang Xinh Xinh, 106 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai St., District 3. This was one of my few non-Vietnamese dinners. I ate at this Korean restaurant because I was searching for a seafood restaurant recommended in Food and Wine Magazine, but the restaurant was closed (or Food and Wine got the address wrong!). I ordered up several dishes, including this cold noodle dish that I thought would be perfect in the hot weather. It was a bit gummy. Ironically, it tasted way better after I took it home and placed it in my hotel refrigerator for awhile. Then it was perfect! (By the way, this Korean restaurant just opened and the service was fantastic. Food is your standard Korean fare.)
Sauteed Frog Legs with Mushrooms at Phuong Nam in Can Tho. On my first night in the Mekong Delta, our tour guide took us to eat at this restaurant often recommended by tour guides. The food was mediocre and I was trying to find something unusual but the most exotic (other than the snake meat appetizers) was this dish of frog legs. While most of my fellow travelers (from Australia and Germany) thought I was weird, it was no biggie since I’ve eaten frog legs before in Paris, New York and the Bay Area. These were just OK, served up with simple button mushrooms.
Ca Kho To or Boneless Fish in Clay Pot at Nam Bo in Can Tho. On our second day in Can Tho, our tour guide took us back to Phuong Nam to eat at the restaurant right next door. The owners are friends and they share similar items on the menu. However, the cooking technique at this restaurant next door is far superior. This claypot dish was so fresh, tasty and fluffy (is that a culinary description?) that it turned me on to claypot cooking, which I plan to make soon.
Meat With Burnt Rice at Nha Hang, 242 Tran Bing Trong, District 5. After walking in this area known as the Chinatown of Saigon and not finding one dim sum restaurant, I wandered into this local dive that looked pretty crowded with Vietnamese people having an afternoon drink. I saw on the menu this dish called Meat with Burnt Rice and wondered what it could be. Ugh, the horror. It was rice from the bottom of the rice pot that had been puffed up into what resembled rice crackers. (All you dieters know what I mean.) And then grounded meat was poured over the rice pieces. Probably my worst meal in Vietnam, but luckily, only one or two mishaps in what was generally a wonderful culinary experience.

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