Sunday, January 19, 2014
But things aren't looking good. The six of us are split between two rooms at the hotel and the other room is in a poor condition to say the least. They're 30 minutes late to our planned meeting time due to various digestive issues, putting everyone in a fairly pensive, cautious mood.
That isn't helped when we arrive to the banh mi place and find that it's closed for the day. Back into “where are the locals eating?” mode and we find ourselves at some sort of rice place with fried and braised meats. It's not too great and it causes a fissure in the group, with the sick and cautious almost instantly deciding to head back to the hotel to rest for the day.
Only two of us remain and after a quick stroll I decide to go and check out the Lunch Lady that was made famous by the show No Reservations for her one soup a day menu. We eventually find her down a side street, conducting a soupy opera from behind her cart, thanks to the show, which now serves dozens of tables at a time. It's also the site of one of the largest populations of whiteys in Saigon.
You sit down and if you're a said whitey they'll also hook you up with some spring rolls and fried cakes from neighbouring stores. You can wave them off it you want, but for like 50c there isn't much point. Saturday is usually banh cahn day. Crab broth, crab “udon”, prawns, pork, quail eggs and some sausagey things. The broth is loaded with flavour, complex and rich but not over the top. All of the ingredients perfectly cooked. There might be better soup places in the city, but this is a good stop.
We head back to the hotel to check on the patients and the scene isn't good. Their hotel room is like an opium den that has had all opium removed to make room for dead bodies. The lights are off and the curtains drawn further closed than seemed physically possible; the air con is off and the windows aren't open so the air is hot and stale; they groan at the sight of light when we enter, with different levels of enthusiasm. It's going to be just the two of us for dinner too.
Tired from the day--and on a caffeine/sugar crash after our delicious Vietnamese coffees--we aren't feeling like doing much at all, so we head to a well regarded local BBQ place for dinner called Luong Son Qun. It's kind of a Korean BBQ joint that has most animals on the menu. We grab the beef and ostrich that you cook yourself on the charcoal grill on the table, some crunchy fried crickets (kind of like popcorn with legs; fried scorpion next time) and a couple of other things. With some cold Tiger Crystal beers on the side it's a pretty killer meal. Not cheap by Viet standards but significantly cheaper than the Sydney equivalent.
Back at the hotel everyone is still close to death. I crack some beers that I got from a convenience store because I hadn't seen before. They're pretty horrible. The other one not sick is starting to fade with every new beer I crack. What condition will he be in tomorrow morning? What condition will everyone else be in tomorrow? Saigon, you are a cruel mistress.
One of the extremely frustrating things here is that, while food is quite plentiful and there is no shortage of places to eat nearby, we have to play it fairly smart and avoid a lot of them because of their questionable hygiene. And with restaurants here usually only specialising in one dish and people generally eating certain dishes at certain times, you need to time your meals. Everywhere else I've been on holiday it's been easy to find tasty food at all hours. But here it's actually really hard to find a place that satisfies all the criterion of a) clean(ish), b) open, c) selling food that's identifiable and d) serves something you want. In the mood for something good and fried at night? Going to be walking a LONG way. Want to get something quick to takeaway and eat at the hotel room while chilling out? Good luck finding that.
As a result of that and all the walking, I think I'm actually losing weight.
And that's a strange holiday experience. The foreign takeaway places are starting to look tempting to fill in the gaps. It goes against everything I've stood for in trips so far, but maybe I can convince myself it's okay if I head for an Asian outlet like Lotteria.
For lunch we head to a touristy restaurant in the middle of District 1 that has a bunch of stalls, all specialising in a couple of dishes that you would find around Vietnam. You order off a combined menu and they go to the various stalls and get the food.
Banh xeo is a dish I was pretty keen to try over here so that was a must order. It's a crepe stuffed with prawn, chicken and a few other things, named for the sizzling sound of the batter. Super tasty.
Banh beo is another one. Steamed rice flour cakes topped with dried prawns.
You're paying a lot more at this place than on the street, but it's convenient and comfortable so a nice change of pace from sitting on small stools and plastic chairs.
Dinner time sends us towards a pork and vermicelli place at the western end of District 1 that came well recommended. Though we get there and it's closed, so we have to again look for places that seem a) clean(ish), b) have good looking food, and c) look popular with locals. Thankfully we're close to the Tan Dinh market which has some stalls open at night, many selling the typical Saigon dish of broken rice (com tam). We end up and one and order it with a variety of porky goodness. Fermented sausage is a highlight and has me regretting my pork chop. Sugar cane juice (nuoc mia) on the side gives the dish a super tasty sweet/savoury balance and all up it's only $2. We walk around a bit more, thinking we might get more food, but nothing satisfies the requirements.
We eventually end up at Hoa Vien Brauhaus, apparently Vietnam's first craft beer brewery, for a drink and small bite. Their beers are pretty solid imitation of Czech beers and, while not too great, make a nice change to the shitty cheap Viet lagers we've been drinking so far. The food looks overpriced so we don't bother.
Saturday, January 18, 2014
I've never been the sort of person to wax lyrical about pho and I'm not going to start here. This bowl of pho did not change my life. It was, however, extremely delicious. It's a fairly clear broth but one packed with beefy goodness. So much flavour that it belies the clarity of the broth. The soup is in balance, the herbs are fresh, the noodles nicely cooked and slippery and it's only $2.50 AUD. That's a lot for a bowl of pho over here, but still dirt cheap where we're from. It hits the spot.
After the pho we start walking around a bit and acclimatising ourselves to the traffic. Much is said about the traffic here and the complete lack of order and obedience to the rules, but it misses the point. There's a graceful flow to the chaos: the bigger the vehicle, the more right of way it has; stay moving straight and at a consistent speed and everything will flow around you; honking can be used to express disappointment but is also used a lot to indicate your presence.
Lunch is spent at the huge (and hugely touristy) Ben Thanh market, which is a somewhat challenging task because much of lunch can be spent a) deciding what looks good and b) avoiding the people trying to force you to eat at their stall. I decide to go with a fairly tried and true method of looking where the local-looking people are eating. This leads to me hammering down a bowl of bun rieu cua (noodles with fermented crab stock) and grilled pork on vermicelli. Having decided that avoiding ice is too difficult in this city, I'm washing it down with a super refreshing lemon drink. Despite it being in the overpriced market, this lunch only costs around $2.
We head to a relatively nearby icecream place called Fanny's which not only comes highly rated on TripAdvisor, but has also been called by one of my friend's "worldly" co-workers as "the best vanilla ice cream in the world". It serves as a reminder to why a) TripAdvisor reviews should be taken with a grain of salt and b) that not all personal recommendations are to be trusted.
It's all fairly light eating up to this point because we've booked in a food tour for the night and want to be sufficiently prepared for that.
After meeting our guide, Vu, at the hotel, we're chucked into a couple of taxis and
You know you're ready for a good time when you arrive to a place and you're greeted with this:
And it's here that having a local (or at least someone that speaks the language) comes in handy. Unguided we could have missed out on all the good stuff, but in Vu's hands he fills the table with things like BBQd conch meat (the meat is removed, BBQd on charcoal, sliced and put back in the shell), chilli crab claws and, on my request, blood cockles (served only barely cooked, dipped in lime, pepper and salt). One of the highlights had to be scallops stir fried with pork fat. Amazing:
Leaving that place (Quan oc Linh) we walk to the next place down the road and there's more tasty treats to come: juicy, charcoaled BBQd frog, grilled prawn skewers, duck tongues (chewy, pointless, but amazing sauce) and, for the more adventurous in the group, duck embryo egg:
While it may have been challenging on its own, despite all the beers we'd had, here it was done in a sour/sweet tamarind sauce with peanuts and herbs, offsetting an unpleasant taste or smell in the egg. It was something I've wanted to try for a long time and probably something I won't bother trying again as the early and later stages of egg development are far tastier.
We cross the road to district 5 to wrap up the savoury with a crab hotpot, okra with stinky tofu (not as bad as the Chinese one) and oysters. Dessert a quick cab ride away for some lotus seeds and seaweed on ice, and we're all done.
Normally food tours look pretty shitty and pandering to western tastes. But here, we got everything we wanted and more. If I ever return, investing in the services of a fixer could be worthwhile to break down some of the barriers that exist between me and tasty food.
Thursday, January 16, 2014
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
The room is nice, classic. It feels like a fancy restaurant felt like a few years ago before insane fitouts and "dark and moody" started to happen.
I'm not sure if it's the ceremonial feel of all of the white, but I feel like we've come to worship at the cult of Perry. The waiters start by asking us if we've been to Spice Temple or Bar & Grill. And which one, in which state, because they're all so different. Then we're handed the menus and presented with a list of all of the suppliers. (Hint: Because Neil likes people to know)
You can choose between having 2, 3 or 4 courses, but all start with an amuse of spanner crab and jerusalem artichoke. It's a sneak peak of things to come; a strong French backbone to the dish but an emphasis on delicate flavours, texture and bringing everything out of the ingredients on hand.
My first chosen course is the chirashi zushi which I'd heard a fair bit of. The best way to describe it is if someone took a really good bento box, one made with fish of superb quality, exploded it, and added a few dabs of chilli sauce. The rice is beautifully cooked and all of the seafood (tuna, kingfish, snapper, etc) is excellent.
Though the pick of the main courses has to be the blue swimmer crab and corn congee. Praise Perry, this is a great dish. It's a haute congee with superb ingredients and a huge emphasis on texture. It's probably the dish of the night. I want this. In a bucket.
Not far off is the chicken "terrine" that sits on a bed of custard with fragrant and medicinal "precious herbs". If the chicken wasn't impressive enough on it's own--it kind of takes different cuts of the chicken and assembles them to make it look like a piece of pork belly--the custard is soft and the precious herbs are all perfectly cooked and round out the dish.
Desserts were all solid for this level; nice representations of flavour, texture and temperature.
I've found it hard to write about this meal. Most of the time I'll just shit something out pretty soon after the fact, either loving or hating the place, riding on the wave of emotion that I felt. But with this write-up I've been tinkering with it for a month or so, struggling to find the words that can convey my experience. But I suppose that's really the conclusion here: it was a meal that took me a month to write up. A month to continually force myself to write something, then get disinterested, then write some more.
There's no denying the food is good. But it left me feeling a little like I did when I went to est: I enjoyed my time, I didn't regret my time by any stretch, but perhaps next time I'll spend my money elsewhere. I can't fault this place, but I also can't get as excited about this place as I can with others at this price point. Maybe it's me. Definitely it's me.
RATING: Okay, may go back [?]
Saturday, September 22, 2012
But it totally floored me. There was such complex spicing in the dish. It was earthy, yet extremely fragrant. It wasn't hot or heavy. There was the spongey pancake that came with it that I would later learn is called injera. And there was a small squeeze of lemon that gave everything even more depth. I was in love.
See, big companies are always making their staff fill out surveys and questionnaires to see if their staff are happy and committed to doing a good job. Because less than 100% of people voted that there was no discrimination at work, people decided that it would be swell to recognise other cultures by having one of those international food things that all the kids are talking about these days.
Only, it wouldn't be a normal food day where everyone brings a dish. It would be a battle. A gauntlet would be laid and one cuisine would battle another.
Someone said they'd lead a team to cook Indian food and everything went quiet. I thought it would be funny to flex Ethiopia's muscles (and all 10 dishes in their culinary repertoire) against what many consider to be one of the great cuisines in the world.
One thing on the table will be this dish. Kind of a side dish, but Ethiopian food is usually a huge injera with half a dozen or so different stews (wats) or stir fries (tibs) stacked on top.
1. Wrap half a garlic bulb in foil and put it into a 200oC oven until the cloves are soft (~45 mins). Once done, remove from oven and leave to cool.
2. In some sort of vessel (I make a sort of bed of foil) put 1T berbere, 1T curry powder, 1t cumin seeds, 1t coriander seeds, 1t fenugreek seeds, 1t salt, 1t black pepper, 1t fennel seeds, 10 or so curry leaves. Put it in the oven with the garlic for around 5 mins or until fragrant. Allow to cool then blend in a spice mix or mortar and pestle.
3. Puree 1 celery stalk, 1 medium red onion, 1 big thumb sized piece of ginger, 1 big thumb sized piece of fresh turmeric (otherwise, add 1T to the spice mix in step #2). Cut the garlic in half horizontally and squeeze out the cloves. Add this to the puree.
4. Clean and peal 1 carrot and 3 large potatoes (I used the equivalent in kipflers). Cut into even chunks around 2cm square.
5. In a large pot over a medium heat add 2T ghee (can sub with grapeseed, coconut or palm oil) and the blend from step #2. Stir then add the puree from step #3. Mix for around 5 mins, making sure it doesn't stick to the bottom.
6. Add the potato and carrot and stir. Keep stirring for around 5 mins or so.
7. Add enough vegetable stock to just cover the vegetables and reduce the heat to low. Cook uncovered until the vegetables have softened. If it's getting too dry, add more stock.
I served it with old sourdough bread in lieu of injera and topped it with a fried mixture of green chilli, onion and curry leaves.
Tuesday, August 28, 2012
Here are a few things I've eaten lately that took my fancy, in a way that only things can do.
Cough Syrup Ice Cream @ N2 Extreme Gelato
For a while I wondered what the hell the name meant and what made it so "extreme". This was knowing full well that they make their ice cream a la minute upon ordering. Oh, yeah, with liquid nitrogen.
Honestly, I only just got the name 5 minutes ago.
Nevertheless, I always liked cough syrup as a kid so the idea of a cough syrup ice cream had the fat child inside me
There's a cloud of smoke from the LN2 and then the blender whirls and then you have your ice cream. It's almost sorbet-esque as I think it's more milk based than custard based. And gosh it's as nice as it is fun.
I would have tried another scoop but they don't do double scoops. Next time, a milkshake. The place has only just opened up in the non-touristy section of Dixon St. This is going to be CHOCKERS in summer.
Preserved Egg and Pork Congee @ Super Bowl
From the non-touristy section of Dixon St we head to the touristy section.
I have a memory from childhood that I can't shake. Before a Sydney Kings game at the Entertainment Centre (remember when basketball was popular?) my parents took me here and we ate what westerners eat and one of my parents said "now you can tell your friends you've been to the superbowl".
It sounded weird so I didn't.
Years later and Super Bowl is the sort of place I go to when I have a craving for their signature dish: congee (which is about once every 2 years).
Stacks of flavour in the bowl, awesome fried bread, mega servings. I wasn't that hungry but GOD DAMN did I enjoy this bowl.
Feijoada @ Cafecito
I moved offices at the start of this year which meant that my morning commute took me straight past this fairly nondescript cafe in a fairly nondescript arcade that ajoins Town Hall where every shop seems to go bust within 6 months.
I saw the Brazilian flags hanging proudly and wondered if they have good coffee, basically daily. It wasn't until recently, when I gave up coffee, that I started wondering if they had one of my favourite dishes of all time: feijoada.
Turns out they bloody well do.
HOLY HELL do I love feijoada. Unfamiliar with it? It's basically Brazil's national dish, a stew of pork offcuts, chorizo, black beans, herbs and spices that gets cooked for hours until the fatty pork breaks down and the pot turns a kind of deep purpley black colour. It's almost like cassoulet, but somehow packed with more flavour.
I've made it a few times myself out of desperation, not having anywhere to provide it to me. Now, I have Cafecito. Their version comes with the traditional sides of collared greens, friend cassava flour, rice and orange. It's very, very tasty.
With plenty of other Brazillian dishes on the menu I'm a certainty to return. Unfortunately, they only open for lunch and breakfast, so you'll need to get there early(ish) for your fix.
Monday, August 27, 2012
It was one of the reasons why I chose Sushi E as one of my first "fine dining" destinations when I was first getting into eating out. It was a funny night, looking back. We ordered the second cheapest bottle of wine (which was still bloody expensive at nearly three times retail), I didn't know how to pronounce ceviche when I ordered it, we hadn't figured out that food can be shared and we had to stick with cheaper dishes that would get us full before our money ran out.
I still remember the food well. The tuna ceviche was bright, sharp and studded with chunks of exceptional tuna. The rolls were perfect constructions of taste and texture. The sashimi was of a quality I never thought was possible.
As great as it was, I knew it could be better. It was here, at Sushi E, that I decided that eating out shouldn't have limitations. If I couldn't afford to go to a place and order what I wanted, then I'd go somewhere else. It might mean having a few more cheap nights out before you can afford the big one, but it makes the experience that little bit sweeter knowing that if you want something, you can have it. It's greed, basically.
And now, years later, I'm back at Sushi E for my second go. I think I'm probably even more excited this time.
We get a seat at the counter, in nearly the same spot as last time. To complete the loop, the person I went with all those years ago is here tonight too. We start with a bottle of champagne. Last time we did the same, but it was when you could call sparkling wine "champagne" (remember that?).
From what I remember of it, the menu hasn't changed much. If at all.
We kick off with sashimi, as is required at a place like this. My eyes aren't quite as wide to the joys of raw fish as they were on that previous visit, so I'm not as impressed. There's no denying the quality of the fish here, but it's not mind-blowing and might not even be world class. Still among the best in Australia? Probably, though it isn't as peerless as it once was.
The spoons also arrive early. Delicious bites of salmon tartare, spicy scallop and a few other things. The appetite is in high gear.
Tuna tataki arrives on a bed of mixed leaves with a sharp yuzu dressing. The slices with the charred outside go down exceptionally easy.
The same salad is back for the spicy scallops, which are quickly seared with the blowtorch with some mayo and miso. A great flavour combo.
Chicken kara age is solid, with a crunchy, powdery coating over marinated chicken. Not mind-blowing, but above average.
I know how to pronounce ceviche now, so a return to the tuna ceviche is a must. It's exactly how I remember it, with big chunks of magnificent tuna, ripe cherry tomatoes, micro leaves and a sharp citrus punch.
Onto the rolls. The spider roll, filled with crispy soft shell crab, is pure enjoyment to eat. The dynamite roll has heat coming from every direction, but still keeps the flavour of the tuna.
It's all washed down with an excellent drinks list, which is what we'd expect from a Merivale establishment.
While it was excellent to return to Sushi E and the meal was extremely enjoyable, I can't help feel that the old girl is looking a bit tired. The menu hasn't changed in the slightest and feels out of touch, service is a bit slow and the quality is there but it's in danger of losing out to places like Sake and Sokyo who seem to be pushing forward. And you get the feeling they don't care about it. Diners (and their expectations) have changed rapidly over the years; Sushi E hasn't kept pace.
I'll come back again, with far less of a break between visits, but I'm not sure how long it will be before Sushi E becomes an afterthought when people talk about great sushi in Sydney.
RATING: Will return to [?]