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Fine dining in an ultra-fine setting

Update: June, 15/2014 - 16:26
Serene: The al fresco dining area of the Central Pavilion restaurant overlooks the Vinh Hy Bay. — VNS Photos Xuan Hiep

With its secluded location in the Nui Chua National Park and its views of Vinh Hy Bay, the Central Pavilion restaurant at Viet Nam's newest luxury resort caters to the moneyed set. Xuan Hiep tucks in.

Sitting 70 metres above sea level at a dining table overlooking Vinh Hy Bay and the lush hills of Nui Chua National Park, I was lost in a reverie. The smell of the sea, the feel of the ocean breezes, and the stunning views before me were unlike anything that I had ever experienced, although I am an avid traveller.

My recent trip to the central province of Ninh Thuan would not have been complete without a dining experience at the Central Pavilion's restaurant at Amanoi resort, the newest and 26th property of the Aman luxury-resort group, where room rates start at the US$900++ mark.

Amanoi, which combines the Sanskrit word for peace (aman) and the Vietnamese word for place (noi), is situated within Nui Chua National Park, home to 1,500 plant species, 160 bird species and 60 species of mammals.

Medley of flavours: Canh chua ca (sweet and sour fish soup) is a typical and traditional Vietnamese dish.

Opened in October last year, the highly secluded and exclusive resort has luxurious pavilions, villas and idyllic grounds.

After a stroll up to the restaurant, my friend and I were greeted with breathtaking views overlooking the serene bay. The mountains of the park served as the perfect backdrop.

The restaurant's design blends contemporary and traditional Vietnamese architecture with an emphasis on elements from nature. Indoors in the air-conditioned restaurant, photos and paintings by Vietnamese artists grace the walls.

During our dinner, we could not hear any noise except for the rustling of leaves from the forest trees and the sounds of insects, birds and other animals.

Nicola van Heemsbergen, a Belgian who is executive chef at Amanoi, visited our table and told us that his aim was to introduce the finest Vietnamese cuisine to international diners.

"We want our customers to discover the flavours from every region of the country," he said.

Ngu Huu Phuc, the restaurant's manager, recommended the chef's selection of the day: ca kho to (stewed caramelised fish with sauteed vegetables for VND485,000).

We also ordered canh chua ca (sour fish soup for VND295,000) as the two dishes complement each other well.

"It's fantastic that canh chua ca has different flavours in one dish, salty, sweet, sour, and spicy," Nicola said.

Fresh from the sea: Goi cuon tom (traditional Vietnamese rice-paper rolls with shrimp), made of steamed shrimp, herbs and vegetables, is one of the restaurant's specialities.

Before trying the soup, I decided to lower my expectations because my mum's version of the soup is truly outstanding.

But I was not disappointed. The dish was a delight, and contained fresh fish, tomato, pineapple, tamarind, bamboo sprouts, okra, herbs, onion and chilli.

The seafood is very fresh, as it is supplied from Phan Rang and the fishing village nearby.

And the vegetables are bought from the Central Highlands city of Da Lat, which is a supply hub for vegetables for the south and south-central regions.

Although I thought the dish could be a bit spicier, diners could easily add more chillis if they so desire.

We then sampled the ca kho to, another fresh fish dish which was a little less salty than I expected.

The goi xoai (green mango salad for VND250,000) was also delicious, and beautifully and refreshingly presented.

Central Pavilion restaurant at Amanoi Vietnam

Add: Vinh Hy Village, Vinh Hai Commune, Ninh Hai District, Ninh Thuan Province

Phone: (+84 68) 377 0777

Website: www.amanresorts.com

Price range: VND160,000-850,000 (US$8-42)

Comment: upscale dining, accommodating staff, magnificent views

The salad was served with soy sauce instead of fish sauce, which I later discovered to be a perfect combination.

As we were still not full, we ordered another dish recommended by the chef: goi cuon tom (rice-paper rolls with shrimp for VND225,000).

If you love fresh steamed shrimp mixed with herbs and vegetables, then this is the dish for you.

Other recommended dishes were goi bap chuoi (chicken and banana blossom salad), mi xao hai san (stir-fried seafood egg noodles with vegetables), muc xao chua ngot (sweet and sour Vinh Hy Bay calamari wok-fried with morning glory).

Nicola told us that he planned to visit more cities in Viet Nam to sample regional cuisine, which he will then adapt for the restaurant's guests.

In addition to Vietnamese food, the restaurant also offers Western dishes that range from VND485,000 to 850,000. There is also a wide array of international drinks and cocktails.

If guests have special needs or requests, Nicola and his staff are more than willing to accommodate them.

Although the food was outstanding, one of the highlights of the evening for me was the staff, so unobtrusive and quiet that I did not even know they were there. They anticipated our every need.

Most of the staff are from Phan Rang or the neighbouring city of Nha Trang. Although they have been well-trained, their professionalism could not hide their natural shyness.

When we finished dinner, it was after 10pm. The sky was lit with thousands of stars, and the cool ocean breeze continued to blow even stronger. All the guests had left except for us. Perhaps it was the outstanding food, or the serene ambiance, or a combination of both, that made it impossible for us to leave. — VNS

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