By Lê Hương & Hồ Hoàng
The northern province of Ninh Bình is not only famed for its spectacular scenery but also local delicacies such as cơm cháy (scorched rice), dishes made of free-range chicken and goats raised on karst mountains.
At the suggestion of a friend, we tried lunch at Thăng Long Restaurant in Chi Phong Village, Trường Yên Commune, in Hoa Lư District while on a recent business trip to the area.
The restaurant is enormous, with seating for around 1,000 customers at any one time. We were there on a week day, just after social distancing measures had been lifted, so there were only a few diners beside us.
The restaurant is spacious and clean. VNS Photos Đoàn Tùng
Our host Nguyễn Văn Quyết welcomed us with a warm smile and recommended we try a few of the restaurant’s goat meat delicacies.
“We have been open for more than ten years,” Quyết told us. “We only use fresh local goat meat in our dishes, which are enjoyed by both local people and tourists.”
The secret to customers returning again and again is indeed the fresh goat meat, together with spices mixed in a handed-down marinade as well as fresh local aromatic herbs.
Among the restaurant’s main dishes are dê tái chanh (underdone goat meat seasoned with lime juice, sesame, and herbs), dê nướng tảng (goat meat grilled on charcoal), dê xào lăn (stir-fried goat meat), and dê hầm thuốc bắc (goat meat stewed with medicinal herbs).
We decided on dê tái chanh, dê nướng tảng, dê xào lăn, and stir-fried sweet potato leaves, and also plumped for cơm cháy.
Just 15 minutes later the first of the hot and yummy dishes were laid out on the table in front of us.
Cơm cháy - a significant delicacy of Ninh Bình..
Cơm cháy is crispy and dipped in a tasty goat meat sauce. Dê tái chanh boasts slices of soft fresh goat meat, while dê xào lăn is even tastier, with loads of spices.
Grilled goat meat on charcoal.
Dê nướng tảng tickled all of our taste buds, retaining the sweet savour of the meat.
Quyết said the dishes are made using different parts of a goat. For example, dê tái chanh is made of meat taken from the thigh, while dê xào lăn and dê nướng tảng use goat belly, which is fattier.
Stirred fried goat meat.
Mountain goats climb high above and eat wild vegetables, so their meat is not overly fatty but extremely tasty, which is different from goats raised in pens, Quyết explained.
One thing that stood out to all of us was the size of the servings, which were much larger than in other restaurants nearby.
Besides its focus on fresh meat and vegetables, Quyết said, the restaurant also pays significant attention to the way its dishes are prepared.
“All dishes are served piping hot, be it summer or winter.”
Quyết added: “In addition to goat, Ninh Bình has other delicacies made of mountain snails, shrimp paste, and frogs. We offer just part of my homeland’s diverse culinary art.”
We also had a chance to chat with Chef Đào Văn Lượng, who has been with Thăng Long Restaurant since its very first day.
He told us a lot about cơm cháy, the local delicacy.
“We mix and steam two types of rice in the dish,” he revealed. “It should contain sticky rice from Kim Sơn District in the province and another type of broken rice.”
The two types of rice are steamed in a metal saucepan, with the sticky rice softening the mixture. Scorched rice at the bottom of the saucepan is then dried under sunlight for two days.
“Natural sunlight adds fragrance to the scorched rice,” Lượng explained. “This is why we don’t use drying machines, like other restaurants do.”
The sun-dried scorched rice is then deep-fried in oil.
All dishes are tasty and fresh. The amount is too much for four of us.
Lượng told us the rice must be fried to a proper temperature so that it is crispy yet soft at the same time.
The dipping sauce is then made from a broth of goat bones, goat meat, onion, carrots, and cassava starch.
Nguyễn Thị Bích Nhàn, a guest at the restaurant, loved the cơm cháy prepared by Chef Lượng.
“It’s crispy, fatty, and tasty,” she said.
“And the sauce is excellent. I can taste the savour of goat meat in the sauce. It’s tastier than similar dishes I’ve had elsewhere. Whenever I visit Ninh Bình, I simply must have cơm cháy.”
Our lunch was reasonably priced for the area. We paid VNĐ150,000 (US$6.4) for dê tái chanh, the same for dê xào lăn, and VNĐ280,000 ($12) for dê nướng tảng. The cơm cháy was VNĐ150,000 ($6.4) and the stir-fried vegetables VNĐ40,000 ($1.7).
The four of us were all full and left Thăng Long Restaurant more than satisfied. VNS
Nhàn and her family enjoy their lunch at the restaurant.
Thăng Long Restaurant
Chi Phong Village, Trường Yên Commune, Hoa Lư District, Ninh Bình Province
Hours: 9am – 11pm
Price: VNĐ20,000 – VNĐ420,000 per dish
Hotline: 0975.155.458; 083.888.0606