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Quan An Ngon (Ho Chi Minh City)

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Location: 138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, Ho Chi Minh City.

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      01.03.2011 12:23
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      Vietnamese cuisine at its best

      On our very first night in Vietnam, our tour guide took us on an orientation walk of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) to finish up at a nice restaurant. We ate quite early - the Vietnamese do - which was good as we were all a bit jet-lagged and disorientated. The restaurant was on Pasteur Street in District 1, just a short walk from the Reunification Palace. I am told that Ngon is Vietnamese for 'delicious'.

      The restaurant seemed quite busy but our guide had booked a table for us upstairs. The downstairs seemed quite open and there were lots of tables and chairs outside, which I recall thinking was a bit ambitious if you had experienced a HCMC afternoon rain shower as we had. The restaurant had a colonial style to the décor but was modern with it. We walked up the large, wide wooden staircase to the top floor and were seated at out large wooden rectangular table. As I looked around there was a mix of Vietnamese and Western people dining, and it seemed popular with families. The windows opened out onto the street and above us were attractive lighting fixtures - rectangular, like the table, draped in fabric, with lights hanging from them and in keeping with the contemporary colonial look the restaurant seemed to be going for. There were also fans, so coupled with the large, open windows we were comfortable for evening dining as it can get very humid. The light fixtures provided adequate lighting without glare and contributed to the atmosphere.

      Apparently downstairs were a host of 'street stalls' that prepared the food in an authentic (and hygienic) way in front of the diner if you wish, however I was not aware of this until afterwards so I didn't look out for them. We were all given menus to order from and found them to be extremely extensive - a bit too extensive if I was going to be picky, offering a huge range of meat, fish and vegetarian dishes from different parts of Vietnam. There are some unusual dishes to try if you are feeling brave. Traditionally in Vietnam you order a selection of dishes and everyone digs in and had a small piece of each dish - a bit like a Tapas, except the portions are larger. We tried to do this but in our jet-lagged state and the vast size of the menu it started to get complicated, but the meat eaters did get to try some other dishes. As a vegetarian I kept my order separate however. In the end I went for a vegetarian curry with steamed rice. My other half ordered prawn skewers, also with rice and a portion of stir fried vegetables.

      The whole restaurant was big, bustley and noisy. Not so noisy that you couldn't hear you neighbour speak, more of an atmospheric lively background noise, but you were aware of it. There were plenty of waiting staff and all were smiley and helpful and most spoke excellent English. One chap took the orders and we all got our own individual bills which made paying much easier at the end. Obviously with one person ordering it took a while, but with fourteen people with jet-lag, in culture shock this was never going to be a quick process. The waiter also made recommendations, so unless you have any specific dietary requirements I think you will be in safe hands letting the staff decide what you want! As soon as you had finished deciding he took your order and one of his colleagues whizzed off to get your food. Most of us didn't have starters and it did mean that food was arriving at different times; however this is typical of the region and something you get used to.

      When my vegetarian curry arrived it was in a huge bowl, most people would consider it almost serving bowl sized, with a lovely greeny-yellow sauce, of a similar thickness and consistency to Thai curries I have had in the past in the UK. I could see quite a few vegetables in it and what appeared to be a chicken drumstick. However, the drumstick wasn't quite right and I could tell that the bone wasn't real and on closer inspection was actually a stick of lemongrass. I was a bit baffled about what the 'chicken' bit was and asked a waiter, after teasing me that it was real chicken, he informed us that it was actually made for mushroom. Of course Quorn is made from a member of the fungus family, so this isn't a completely daft concept, although it didn't taste particularly mushroomy or like Quorn. I was satisfied it wasn't chicken. In my boyfriend's stir fried veggies there were shi-take mushrooms and he found the taste and texture of those to be the same as my 'drumstick' so we are guessing that those were what they used. After I had got over my slight trauma of finding something reminiscent of a dead animal in my curry I really enjoyed it. There was a good selection of different vegetables in there (at home sometimes they bulk them out with potatoes and onion) and plenty of sauce. I certainly wasn't going hungry this evening, as my portion of rice was enough for two also. The steamed rice is the sticky type rice you often get Asian restaurants at home. My boyfriend's prawns were of a large (king prawns) and were on the skewer with their heads and tails, so he did have to remove them to de-shell them and whatever. He thought them tasty and well cooked and there were a dozen skewers in all and also enjoyed the variety and taste of his stir fried vegetables.

      Drinks on offer included the usual assortment of fizzy drinks, beers (Tiger and two local beers, I believe there was at least one European beer also) as well as smoothie type drinks and alcoholic spirits and cocktails. I order a diet coke which came in its can (this is usual - they never serve glasses or bottles of fizzy drinks) and a glass filled with ice. Erring on the side of caution I ignored the ice as I wasn't sure how it was prepared and it was too early in the trip for a dickey tummy. I managed to procure a chilled glass brought over for the beer drinkers (all beer is served in bottles). As it was quite late by the time we had finished (almost 8 o' clock - but 2am by our body clocks) we didn't have any desserts.

      At the end, when it was time to pay, we each had an individual bill. My bill for the vegetarian curry, rice, Diet Coke and restaurant tax came to VND 66,000 which is actually about £2.20 or US$3.50. I thought this an absolute bargain for such tasty and generous food in lovely surroundings. Others having meat or fish dishes obviously paid slightly more, but meals averaged about the £3 mark per head. If you are in HCMC at any time then I strongly recommend a visit here. The food was gorgeous, generous and good value along with helpful service and a pleasant décor. If there are a large number of you, it may be best to book, but it seems to be a large restaurant that operates efficiently, so you could get lucky if you just turned up. Apparently there are several restaurants with this name in the city and they seem to be a small chain. I ate in the one on Pasteur Street. If getting a taxi, look out for the metered cabs such as Mai Linh and write the name on a piece of paper to show them

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