Colourful corner: Món Ngon Sài Thành is a newly-opened locale offering southern foodies a taste of home.
Món Ngon Sài Thành, new addition to the capital's culinary scene, offers diners passionately prepared dishes from the south of the country. Ollie Arci pays them a visit.
Southern summer in a Hà Nội downpour
Over the last couple of weeks, the streets of Hà Nội have often seemed more like rivers.
With monsoon season in full force it's vital to know some restaurants where you can take shelter from the sudden downpours.
In fact, it was during one of northern Việt Nam's summer showers that I visited Món Ngon Sài Thành, a newly opened locale offering southern foodies a taste of home. The spot, tucked away on 8 Dã Tượng Street in Hoàn Kiếm District, is actually the second iteration of the concept in the capital city. The first, situated on Huỳnh Thúc Kháng, has been open for a mere three months. Clearly there's a taste for Sài Gòn cuisine.
After having lived in Hà Nội for nearly two years I was curious to see what else the country's gastronomic landscape had to offer.
The restaurant itself was a breath of fresh air, with the green facade resembling a beach-side pad, even if you had to imagine the sand and surf. The feeling continued indoors, where the brightly lit interior and airy atmosphere were suggestive of a summer retreat. A light colour scheme and abundant foliage makes for a clean and fresh ambiance. I was definitely mistaken, but I could've sworn there was sunlight streaming through the windows.
The staff were warm and welcoming, and I was particularly impressed by the thought given to their uniforms - a smart mix of old and new with braces and flat caps, with matching ao dais for the waitresses. Although subtle, the attention to detail makes for a pleasant dining experience.
Món Ngon Sài Thành is deceptively spacious, offering three floors of seating that could cater to both larger groups and smaller families. An abundance of glass and natural light enhances the sense of space. I almost forgot about the torrential rain. In terms of decor, colourful wooden shutters and stylised murals of street scenes whisk diners away from the hustle and bustle.
The restaurant is the brainchild of Ms Hạnh Phạm, who is herself passionate about southern cook ing and saw the opportunity to bring those dishes to a northern audience. I was told that the head chef, Ms Lê Kim Chi, is the daughter of famed Má Sáu Cây Dừa, a name synonymous with the southern culinary scene. I was eager to see if the food lived up to the hype.
As I sat down with my host for the meal I was offered a refreshing glass of chè lá dứa (VNĐ120,000), with pineapple leaves and coconut jelly. It felt like a perfect start to a summer sojourn.
The first dish to arrive was the gỏi bòn bon tôm thịt, or cattail salad with pork and shrimp (VNĐ130,000). The salad was an appetising bundle of fresh colours, and I was impressed when my host informed me that the vegetables and seafood were specialities of the area around HCM City, and were in fact flown in daily. The flavours were equally fresh, and the slight sourness was a fitting complement to the shrimp.
The dish of ốc bông hấp sả, or steamed sea snails (VNĐ90,000), was my first hint of the marine-themed menu. The snails had been steamed with lemongrass, chilli and fresh herbs. I hadn't tried sea snails before, and I was immediately ransported to the ocean thanks to the salty taste. The flavours were light, and I could've happily tucked into another bowl.
Scent of the sea: Steamed sea snails with lemongrass.
Next up was the deep fried half-dried squid (VNĐ305,000), which arrived on a platter and was expertly diced by our waiter. This dish would be big enough for two or three people to share, and comes with a spicy dipping sauce. The batter was fluffy and light, as opposed to the greasy offerings sometimes prepared by restaurants, and again the squid was evidently very fresh.
As with the squid, a large bánh xèo (VNĐ68,000) was brought out and chopped up before our eyes. It returned promptly in the form of spring rolls with a chilli dip.
Each bite was a crunchy mixture of salad and the classic Vietnamese pancake, stuffed with pork and shrimp. I was starting to notice a theme with the light summer flavours and fresh ingredients - there was no sign of heavy winter warmers, and such things would have been somewhat out of place in the surroundings.
The meal didn't stop there as our waiter brought out a frisbee-sized dome of scorched rice alongside a bowl of caramelized fish sauce (VND115,000). We eagerly broke into the crispy shell and dipped the pieces into the rich sauce. The rice was perfectly cooked to a crisp and the sauce had an excellent salty, smokey flavour.
A substantial bowl of clams appeared in a golden, buttery sauce, topped with shredded coconut. Again, at first bite you could immediately tell that the clams were fresh, and the slight spice of the sauce was neutralized nicely by the sweet scent of coconut.
The finale was a bubbling hotpot of giant crayfish, floating in an aromatic passionfruit broth (VNĐ395,000). I was hesitant at the thought of seafood and fruit, but the resulting flavour had just the right amount of sweetness to compliment the fresh white meat. By this point I was feeling more than a little full after the parade of fish dishes, still I couldn't help dunking some crunchy vegetables into the warm broth and ending the meal on a sweet note.
Legs eleven: Hotpot with crayfish and vegetables in a passionfruit broth. Photos by Ollie Arci
I was left with an overall impression of quality, from the bright atmosphere to the freshness of the food. I could tell that there was a deep level of care afforded to the restaurant and the staff were clearly passionate about the dishes they were serving. Many establishments phone it in when it comes to décor, halfheartedly sticking up framed stock photos. Not so with the authentic Saigonesque charm of this locale.
Although the original location is a little far from the city centre, the spot on Dã Tượng is a charming corner just a stone's throw from the Old Quarter. If, like me, you fancy a calming respite from the rain or want to escape to sunnier climes for a few hours Món Ngon Sài Thành comes highly recommended.
Món Ngon Sài Thành
Address: 8 Dã Tượng, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội
Tel: 090 222 3626
Opening hours: Open every day, 10:00 - 22:00.
Comment: Delicious southern style Vietnamese food in a comfortable setting. Perfect for business lunches and family meals.