Good evening, Vietnam!
Vietnam is a simply fabulous place. Twice I have had the privilege of visiting this fascinating country. The first time we travelled to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and on to a beach holiday in Nha Trang and then, on another occasion, to Hanoi. Heavy with history, all these destinations have left me with indelible memories. There was the quite devastating War Remnants Museum in Saigon where I saw unforgettable things that opened my eyes to the atrocities of the Vietnam War, the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre in Hanoi, which charmingly and originally profiled the history and culture of Vietnam, the massive throngs of motor cycles in both cities, often carrying whole families at high speed, that would bear down on pedestrians like one big noisy smoke spewing monster, making you dance across the roads in an outlandish zig zag path, a prayer on your lips and your heart in your mouth. The Vietnamese people were, of course, delightful and very hospitable, the delicately boned women in their silk Ao Dais and their glossy black hair, simply stunning. And then the food! Heavens above, it is glorious!
Well, most of it is. I’m afraid I baulked at deep fried grasshoppers and other insects. It’s perfectly good protein and nice and crunchy, apparently, but I was too much of a wuss. The same goes for that moment at a beach restaurant in then still almost completely undeveloped Nha Trang, when, with horror, I saw rat on the menu, immediately followed by a live specimen scuttling across the floor. That was just a bit too hardcore for me on the culinary front.
Here in London, some of the best Vietnamese restaurants seem to be concentrated on Kingsland Road in Hoxton, a great location if you’re visiting one of the many avant-garde galleries there, but otherwise it’s quite a schlep from Barnes, where we live, on your average sort of evening. Luckily for us, we discovered Saigon Saigon, just a hop over the river, and located on the main Hammersmith to Chiswick drag, King Street.
It is spread over two large interconnecting dining rooms, decorated in that traditional South East Asian style we are, by now, all so familiar with. There are polished wood floorboards throughout, bamboo screens, proper white linen napkins and a sweet little oil lamp on each table. I particularly liked their black and white photos of Saigon in the 1940s, which so reminded me of two of my most favourite films, The Quiet American with Michael Caine, which is in fact set in 1940s Saigon, and The Lover, with the very lovely Jane March and the best looking Oriental actor I have ever seen, Tony Leung Ka-fai, set in Saigon and Paris, a little earlier, in 1929. If you haven’t seen them or read the corresponding novels, you absolutely must do yourself that favour!
The menu at Saigon Saigon is enormous, and there are a great many tantalising dishes to choose from. I had read a few of the review sites before we went, and almost every single reviewer recommended the soft shell crab, so that was always going to be a dead cert. I was delighted to find Grilled Quail on the menu. Many years ago, when I lived in Sydney and was pregnant with my son, Vietnamese Quail was my great craving. I don’t think I have had it since, so finding it here was quite a moment! The Lovely Husband suggested we add on the Braised Ginger Chicken in a Clay Pot and the Crispy Mango Bream, and some sides, Morning Glory fried in Garlic and Egg Fried Rice.
The quail was particularly delicious, subtly spiced and succulent, the soft shell crab looked like a giant spider in batter but tasted good, if a little devoid of personality in that way that battered food always is. The hot sweet chilli dipping sauce thankfully gave it some decent va va voom. The crispy bream was very nice. Again, delicately spiced, and with a fabulous shredded crunchy salad and a punchy but light sauce. The ginger chicken was beautifully cooked, spicy but not too gingery, and that too came with a similar shredded salad. The garlic fried Morning Glory vaguely looked and tasted like green beans but, so I thought, were a little too oily. The egg fried rice was copious and I could well have done without it, but the Lovely Husband appreciated it with the chicken.
As far as desserts in Asian restaurants go, I am sadly predictable and inflexible. If it ain’t toffee bananas, I ain’t playing. Besides, and I realise that many people will find this most peculiar, I’m not a great lover of ice creams and sorbets nor, indeed, of chocolate flavoured puds. So we gave them a miss and settled for coffee and some sweeties, which virtually blew off the roofs of our mouths with spiciness but, which, with hindsight, were strangely palate cleansing.
The place is obviously very popular with the locals and especially with a Vietnamese clientele, which is always a promising sign, and despite phoning days in advance to book a table, we could only get one for the 7 pm slot. It’s a typically simple neighbourhood restaurant and, while the food is certainly very palatable, it is, perhaps, neither as authentic nor quite as satisfying as that at the East London Vietnamese. Still, the service and the general ambience is better here in Hammersmith.
Our bill came to £78.08, including two bottles of beer, a couple of glasses of wine and 12.50% service charge, which was possibly a little more than expected for this type of venue.
What I wore
Cream knitted Luisa Spagnoli skirt, chocolate brown polo neck, dark brown Hermes belt, mocha 50 den stockings, chocolate brown leather boots with heels, brown/beige checked Dika blazer bought in Tbilisi, Georgia, dark brown faux crocodile bag by Mulberry.
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