Duong's Restaurant Saigon & Cooking Class
27 Dong Du Street, Ben Nghe Ward, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
(£1 = 30,000 Vietnamese Dong)
Set Menus: £15.00 - £36.50;
A la carte
Starters £3.50 - £13.00; Mains £9.00 - £25.00; Desserts £4.00 - £5.00
Food 5/10; Service 2/5; Flavour 4/5; Value 3/5
These days you expect the unexpected in Vietnam. It’s a communist country, but business is booming: this place is officially Ho Chi Minh City, but everyone calls it Saigon: and restaurants are traditionally little road side spaces with tiny plastic tables and chairs.
Proprietor Hoang Duong has more modern ideas. Coming from a small village he has embraced modern restaurant capitalism. This is his third restaurant, his first venture in the south, seven hundred miles to the north. He makes all the right noises. His website could have been written by any western PR company. Influence of my father/importance of using fresh ingredients/seasonality of produce – you know the sort of thing
So how has he fared? Our hotel staff were quick to recommend him, and he scores very highly on Trip Advisor – currently 14 out of 4000. I would be lying if I were to say that our decision to visit wasn’t influenced by the fact that there were few major roads between our hotel and this place. Saigon traffic has to be seen to be believed. The population is 11 million. Everyone owns a Vespa or motor bike, and all 11 million are on the roads at all times. Terrifying at first, until you realise that they’re not out to kill you.
Still, you feel you’ve earned a drink and a good meal any time you arrive at a destination. A nice enough place on a couple of floors. No particular frills, which is fine. A bit messy, in fact, cartons just chucked untidily behind the bar area, In casual Vietnam, why am I commenting on this? Well, while the prices are cheap-ish to our eyes, they are way above what you would expect to pay in most parts of the country. And food generally comes out course by course, western style, something which I haven’t been used to in the past fortnight, and which I found I rather dislike in contrast to the crowded chaos of a welcoming Indochinese table.
The menu is in western style sections, appetisers, mains etc. There are three set menus, Traditional, Duoung’s and Top Chef. We go for the former. Someone has told Mr D about the idea of amuse-bouche. We are served a section of pork with a spring roll, a prawn cracker containing five peanuts, and a tiny glass of orange and carrot juice. Each, I hasten to add. Things improve. An opener of deep fried spring rolls and a green mango and seafood salad are indeed traditional and very nice. A classic pho (beef broth with noodles and whatever else the chef fancies) was a very good example of the genre. A BBQ pork with Núơc Mám dressing – (involving, amongst other good things, fish sauce, lemon grass, shallots and sugar) had an intriguing flavour, but was too similar in style to the pho.
Palates were then cleansed with some ginger and honey tea. Surprisingly, the best was saved to last, the surprise being that, almost without exception, any desserts I have tasted in the east have, how shall I put this politely, not been to my taste. OK, downright bogging.
One exception is a Balinese black rice pudding, delicious albeit terribly sweet. Mr Doung’s version reduced the sugar/condensed milk content. The addition of yoghurt in its stead resulted in a truly lovely dessert.
This place is strategically placed for some of the major hotels. That and the way the dishes are served tell me loud and clear that the search is for the Western bucks. (While £40 will turn you into a millionaire in Vietnamese Dong, everywhere will accept US dollars.) We ate a perfectly pleasant meal, but one which was neither one thing nor another. Too little flavour for Vietnam: a little too sloppy (untrained staff and a messy dining room) for the west. A pity – I think this kitchen really could cook well without these constraints.