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Mango to raise the steaks in chain dining

Update: May, 12/2013 - 14:35
Franchise hope:The owner aspires to turn this restaurant into the Vietnamese answer to Morton's Steak House. — VNS Photos Elisabeth Rosen

Mango Steak

Address: 118 Le Duan

Tel.: +84 4 39413828

Price Range: VND60,000 - VND600,000

Comment: Opulent steakhouse grandeur. Dishes to try: Chuck steak (VND110,000), spaghetti with tomato sauce (VND59,000), taro cake (VND25,000)

A new steakhouse in Ha Noi aims at carving out a niche in the packaged luxury market with the idea of setting up a nation-wide franchise operation. Elisabeth Rosen reports

In a country still struggling with the consequences of the global economic recession, is there a market for luxury dining?

Doan Duc Thang has a lot riding on this question. The owner of Mango Steak, who previously headed a company that set up restaurants and hotels, planned this extravagant establishment as the first link in a chain - the Vietnamese answer to Morton's Steak House.

Mango Steak opened in December, but the cavernous space on Ha Noi's Le Duan Street has yet to draw a following. Although the restaurant's Facebook page is plastered with images of crowded tables, we were typically the only diners, save the occasional Vietnamese family lingering over a plate of French fries or hapless Western businessman wandering in, BlackBerry in hand.

With dim chandeliers, exposed brick walls and leather banquettes, the atmosphere is supposed to evoke "European-style luxury", but the relentless insistence that bigger is better - except when it comes to the plates, which contain more white space than food - feels straight out of a textbook reading on conspicuous consumption in modern Asia.

This might be a steakhouse, but we're not in Kansas anymore. Lean back on your leather sofa, emblazoned with giant plastic gemstones, and meditate on the slogan: "I feel food". Steaks come with a choice of fries, mash or taro cake.

The menu allegedly reflects advice from Tran Phong Can (Emeralda Resort, Hilton) and Nguyen Van Tu (Don's, though you may also recognise him from the Vietnamese version of Iron Chef) and is executed by Do Huy Quan, who previously worked at Sen and Moo Beef Steak. Steer clear of the mishmash of "luxury" items and you'll find that Quan grills a decent steak - one that's fairly affordable if you stick to the small portions and cheaper cuts. (A small chuck steak costs VND110,000 ($5.26), while the ribeye and tenderloin options will dig deeper into your wallet). Yet the pricing seems a little off. Why does a 240g large (VND238,000) cost more than two 140g smalls?

There are unanticipated bonuses, like the bronzed potato crisps brought to your table when you arrive and the warm rounds of rosemary-flecked focaccia that come with the mains. But other elements of European cuisine are less successful, like the mushroom sauce - a bland, saffron-tinged cream in which a few stems are the only trace of any fungal presence - or the serviceable French fries. The steak tastes far better paired with a creamy taro cake.

Conspicuous consumption: The menu centres around US imported beef steaks but also includes other luxury items.

The eponymous red meat is really the only reason to come to Mango Steak aside from the novel ambience. A minuscule sesame-crusted tuna steak (VND5,000), served with a scant salad, looks more like an Atkins Diet option than a proper main. Spaghetti in tomato sauce (VND59,000) is a cut above the average - with fresh basil leaves and a touch of grated Parmesan, it earned the praise "admirable" from the long-suffering vegetarian member of our entourage - but it's still nothing compared to what you'd find in a real Italian restaurant. And how about some vegetables?

The only vegetable at Mango Steak (besides a tiny mushroom garnish) doesn't even come on the menu. It's a cruciferous cluster of broccoli and cauliflower, placed awkwardly beside the steak like a last-ditch effort by someone's mother. Yet a whole section of the menu is devoted to Vietnamese luxury foods: steamed black tiger shrimp (VND600,000) and garrupa fish (VND590,000), soft-shelled turtle stewed with red wine (VND550,000/kg). You have to wonder how many people order the seven-dish "game cock feast" (VND490,000/kg).

The place has the feel of a neighbourhood bistro; you wish that the room - and the menu - were smaller and cozier and friendlier. Bigger isn't necessarily better. — VNS

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