|Full course: A set lunch with four courses is a typical meal for southern family gatherings.
Fish and pork dishes flavoured with peperomia, rice-paddy herb and galangal are just a few of the traditional southern specialities that Chef Lam Phuong Vu has reinterpreted at his new restaurant in HCM City. My Duyen reports.
Do you miss your home atmosphere in the countryside, hungry for traditional southern cuisine skilfully cooked by your mum or grandmum? Now, there's no need to return home if you're living in HCM City, as you can find it all: a cosy ambience, a classic interior and authentic delicacies at the recently opened Com Nha Que restaurant.
Its name, which translates to "countryside meal", gives you a clear idea of what will be on offer. Although several restaurants in HCM City offer a long list of traditional dishes, most of them are northern specialities, according to Lam Phuong Vu, the restaurant's owner, chef and food expert.
"I wanted to do something different and unique to satisfy gourmets' tastebuds and tickle their imagination. This thinking pushed me to the traditional kitchen," Vu said.
Upon entering the restaurant, I immediately found it fascinating, with its outstanding decor and collection of rare antiques dating from the late 19th century, inspired by the typical southern country house.
A visit here gives you a chance not only to sample some sinfully enchanting food, but also learn from one of the country's talented chefs.
Vu said he was inspired by the recipes of his grandparents, which he has reinterpreted with elegance and creativity.
His cuisine, blending subtle flavours, textures and colours, invites diners to a gourmet journey to the Mekong Delta by adapting the sometimes-forgotten classics.
Receiving me in a friendly manner at the restaurant's doorsteps were two middle-aged women wearing the typical clothing of rural southern women.
They received me with such warmth that I had the sense of being back home rather than in a HCM City restaurant.
The interior was beautifully decorated with a variety of antiques including ceramic pictures on the wooden walls, radios, old record turntables on the counter, small fans and oil lamps on a wooden shelf.
|Common, but different: Deep-fried spring rolls made in the rural southern manner. — VNS photos by Gia Vi
Antique wooden furniture - wardrobes, buffets, tables and chairs -- created an intimate, family-like dining environment.
The menu included 60 items from starters, soups and vegetables to main courses and desserts for breakfast, lunch and dinner - all traditionally made and finely arranged and presented.
The dishes were served in clay pots, bowls and plates as well as raw bamboo sticks, used only in the countryside kitchen.
As the City has been extremely hot in the last month, my friend and I decided to order two special traditional drinks as recommended by one of the female servers - a roasted red-bean drink with ice (VND29,000) and a brown-rice drink with ice (VND29,000) for my friend.
The first sip of the red-bean drink helped me cool down in the summer heat. Its taste and colour were exactly the same as those prepared by my late mother. In the City today, it is difficult to find places that serve such drinks.
Com Nha Que Restaurant
Add: 93/15 Xo Viet Nghe Tinh St, Binh Thanh Dist, HCM City
Price: VND29,000 - ND189,000 per dish.Three-course set lunch for two or three persons: VND140,000
Comment: Authentic traditional southern food, cosy ambience with impressive antique interior, inviting prices, and dedicated and hospitable servers.
We started our meal with deep-fried spring rolls (VND39,000) - a stand-out dish of the restaurant. Finely arranged, the dish was pleasing to the eye.
It was a perfect combination of fresh minced shrimp and pork, and herbs with a well-made sweet-sour dish sauce, with typical southern greens like mesclun and lettuce -- a delicacy you should not miss.
We then moved on to the four-course set lunch, which was a typical meal for southern family gatherings, and the highlight of the restaurant.
The set (VND200,000 for three or four persons) featured rice with canh chua tom (sweet-sour soup with shrimp), ca loc kho to (snakehead fish braised in clay pot), rau muong xao toi (stir-fried water spinach with garlic) and thit ba roi chien (fried pork belly).
At first I enjoyed rice with braised fish and fried pork belly. Although I had eaten the two dishes at other restaurants in HCM City, the ones at Com Nha Que were truly spectacular.
The braised fish was neither too spicy nor too sweet, unlike what people often assume about southern flavours. And its colour was a visual delight.
The pork dish was tender but crispy, seasoned with a special five-spice powder and garlic. The accompanying stir-fried water spinach caught my eye and I nearly ate it all.
But of all the dishes, my favourite was a sweet-sour soup with shrimp, tomato, okras, bean roots, pineapple and taro. Its seasoning, which combined red chilli, browned garlic, cilantro and rice-paddy herb (which has a sharp citrusy flavour), gave it a wonderful aroma and taste, stimulating the appetite. The dish also helped us digest our large meal.
After the four-course set, we unfortunately had no room for homemade sweets like baked cassava cakes, bananas flambeed with wine and sweet lotus-seed soup.
And the other specialties of the restaurant would also have to wait for another day.
They include hu tieu, a pork noodle soup prepared Mekong Delta style, chao tom, grilled shrimp paste wrapped around sugarcane, and goi bon bon tom thit, a sweet-sour salad made with typha angustifolia pickle, pork belly and shrimp.
"We're planning to add more southern-flavoured signature items to the list such as goi cang cua thit bo, peperomia (herb) with tender beef in sweet-sour sauce with red chili, onion and peanuts, lau ca lang mang chua, a bagridae (a kind of catfish) hotpot with shoot bamboo pickle, and ca lang kho rieng, bagridae braised with galangal," Vu said.
Our meal was indeed a memorable one, and I want to return soon to discover more special dishes from Viet Nam's "food-wealthy" south. — VNS