|Green cuisine: The idyllic setting aims to woo even the most discerning visitor.
The Organics Restaurant, neatly tucked away in the heart of Van Long Reserve's Emeralda Resort, has a new head chef and a freshly overhauled menu serving authentic local cuisine. David Mann reports.
With its industrial façade and dreary town centre, it's easy to see why Ninh Binh may find itself on the cutting room floor of most travel lists.
But beneath its rough and ragged exterior, lies a hidden gem located approximately 90 minutes drive from Ha Noi's city centre. Hundreds, even thousands of weary city-dwellers are escaping to Ninh Binh's best-kept culinary secret, boasting rustic Vietnamese cuisine in a five-star location.
Like many visitors, my intention to visit Ninh Binh's breathtaking natural sights was somewhat dulled by the lack of options for dining and accommodation. As is the case with many places in Viet Nam, there is much to see but a dire shortage of upscale options for those who want them- perhaps accounting for why the town is often overlooked by many travellers.
However, hidden away from the cement factories and errand high-rise motels, the Emeralda Resort and Spa (brought to you by the same team behind Six Senses Resort Nha Trang and the Ana Mandara Villas in Da Lat) offers visitors a tranquil setting to indulge in authentic local cuisine.
|Rustic spread: Visitors can indulge in a variety of local specialties.
Visitors can indulge themselves (as we did) in a rustic spread of local specialties, including lime-seared goat spring rolls, succulent roast duck or traditional north braised fish fillet seared with fresh ginger and soya milk. The restaurant is true to its name, sourcing organic ingredients from the resort's surrounding farms and villages.
Fresh from a culinary tour of Viet Nam's north and southern regions, chef Khoa has infused his menu with the best of both. Ninety per cent of the menu is Vietnamese food, with the new menu encompassing a greater focus on home-style sharing. The restaurant also offers a la carte dining if you're not hankering for a feast - although be prepared for big portions, regardless.
General Manager Richard Frot describes the new menu as a "fusion of the North and South".
"Our local dishes, particularly our duck and goat dishes, have been enormously popular with our guests," he adds.
|Crispy contrast: Lime-seared goat and tempura-style spring rolls.
An international wine and cocktail list is on hand to compliment the rustic flavor of the cuisine. France, Spain, Italy, Argentina, Italy, the US, Chile, and Australia are all represented on the wine list at a broad price range to spare or splurge the budget.
Festooned with traditional artwork, the restaurant oozes a colonial charm with sleek wooden paneling, terracotta floors and a romantic poolside location. Rest assured, you will be made to feel at home by the warm, hospitable staff, the serene setting and a humble menu that punches way above its prices.
On this occasion, we opted for the home-sharing menu, which offers a spread of traditional north braised fish, local style roasted duck, tofu stuffed with mushroom and lemon-grass, spicy broth with prawn and garden star fruit, stir fried chayote shoots (more commonly known as "morning glory") and organic brown rice seasoned with maize and lemon-grass salt - all for VND260,000 per person.
Address: Van Long Reserve, Gia Van Commune,
Gia Vien District, Ninh Binh Province,
Tel: +84 303 658 333
Hours: 10:00 am - 10:00 pm
Price range: VND300,000-500,000
Dishes to try: Lime-seared goat spring rolls, stuffed tofu, black sticky rice
In true Vietnamese style, the dishes are served and eaten together, creating a unique blend of sweet and sour. Despite market rates for local goat meat far exceeding the price of imported beef, this rare but sumptuous delicacy is served in generous portions in fresh spring rolls, complimented by a sweet dipping sauce and fresh local herbs.
Also a favourite, the tempura style deep-fried prawn spring rolls were a crunchy addition to the more subtle textures of the stuffed tofu and freshly tossed morning glory.
Though humble in appearance, the restaurant's black sticky rice served with fresh fruit was the perfect denouement to the meal.
For those who want more traditional fare, the Organics also offers the usual favourites, including New York cheesecake and baked pear and apple tart..
Frot and his team are well acquainted with a diverse Vietnamese palette and southern-style hospitality that is famous across Viet Nam. Despite being early days for the revamped eatery, it is easy to see why the new menu is winning a place in the hearts (and stomachs) of international tastemakers.
As the old wise man once said: come for the food, stay for the view. There are few places outside of Ha Long Bay where visitors can indulge in authentic home-style fare in a five star setting, against an exquisite backdrop of limestone karsts jutting up into the sunset. The resort also allows visitors to relax in villa-style guestrooms and suites, furnished with rich woods and local fabrics.
With more visitors flocking to this countryside retreat, whether to escape the chaotic streets of Ha Noi or explore the inland tributaries of the Trang An Grottoes, Ninh Binh's premier eatery is leading the charge to get this under-rated city off the cutting room floor and back on the travel itinerary. — VNS