In among all the street food, I wanted to go to one fancy-ish restaurant while in Saigon and a couple of people had recommended Ngon. To get us in the mood, we went for a pre-dinner cocktail at the 23rd floor bar in the (very upscale) Sheraton Hotel, which has a fine view over the city and rather nice 2-for-1 cocktails during happy hour. Unfortunately, we remembered once we got there that we hadn’t written down the address of Ngon, so we asked the hotel concierge. He showed us on a map but we also got a taste of high-end hotel living, because he was really concerned to put us in a taxi. You mustn’t walk, he insisted, it’s not safe. He almost had us believing we were going to some sketchy part of town, but of course, looking at the map it was clear the restaurant was right in the centre, more or less where we’d been wandering all week. If the Sheraton advises against walking to Ngon, its guests must see almost nothing of Saigon except out the windows of a taxi. When we got there (unmolested), I almost didn’t want to go in because it looked too fancy. Ngon is in an old colonial building, beautifully restored, and the garden section is full of fairy lights hung from the many trees that fill the space. It’s really quite magical. I was afraid the food would be Anglicised and overpriced, but we’d shlepped all the way there so we went in. I’m so glad we did…it was one of the best meals we ate in Vietnam and cost less than our Christmas barbeque.
We started with some appetisers, including báhn tàm bì, or large rice noodles with shredded pork skin and coconut milk. This is what I love about Vietnam: there is pretty much no concept of dumbing down dishes for Western palates. Maybe it’s because the tourist economy hasn’t taken over to the extent that is has in Thailand. Maybe it’s because Vietnamese cuisine is not considered to be “spicy” and therefore doesn’t need alteration. Maybe it’s because the fancy restaurants in Saigon are still aimed as much at well-to-do locals as tourists. Whatever the reason, it makes me happy beyond measure to find pork skin noodles on a translated menu. Also this dish was insanely good. Just OMG deliciousness. Sweet coconut milk, savoury crunchy pork skin and soft pillowy noodles. I could eat this every day.
We noticed something odd on the menu: whereas most of the rolls came in standard portions, there was one roll, cuôn tré, that was listed per piece. Why was it so much more expensive than everything else? It didn’t seem to have obviously luxurious ingredients. This was already enough to pique my interest, but the filling of pig’s ear, alpinia and garlic wrapped in guava leaf sounded amazing. We ordered two.
I had no idea what alpinia was and had to look it up – apparently it’s a form of galangal. Not quite knowing what either alpinia or guava leaf would taste like, this roll was a revelation. The pig’s ear and garlic provided a rich warm base, while the herbal components were bright, almost piney. I suspect the guava leaf is the expensive part and it was worth every penny. We loved these rolls and I’m still kind of wishing we’d ordered more.
Our main course was more predictable, albeit very nicely done. We had bánh hoi with shrimp wrapped on sugar cane.
I can’t resist bánh hoi, the texture of the noodle squares is really appealing and this version came with lots of interesting things to wrap, like star fruit and thinly sliced yellow eggplant. It wasn’t as exciting as the small plates but it was good. It also exemplified the range of food at Ngon: some dishes were familiar from Vietnamese restaurants abroad and these might not be the most adventurous options, but they were still done well, with nice original touches like the eggplant and starfruit. Others were totally new to me, and many of the dishes I saw go by to other tables I had no idea what they were but oh, how I wanted them.
We finished with a steamed banana cake, at which the waiter gave an approving nod to our order. He knew what he was about too, because the cake was sticky and banana-laden, and generously drizzled with coconut cream.
And of course, no meal in Saigon would be complete without a cup of Vietnamese iced coffee. (There’s a lot of stuff online about how this place is “safe” for tourists and they use bottled water for their ice. I obviously threw those rules over right from day one and drank ice constantly from all manner of vendors, but for those who care about such things, there’s that.)
Everything we ate at Ngon was beautifully made, with clean flavours and a lightness of touch. I think there’s a trick to ordering, because some of the dishes looked a little banal – the German tourists beside us seemed happy enough with their food but it looked kind of dull to me. Similarly, while our bánh hoi was nice, it didn’t set my world on fire, but the pig skin noodles and the guava leaf rolls were spectacular. You definitely have to order on the pig’s ear side of the menu, if you see what I mean. Yes, it’s kind of touristy, but if you’re in Saigon, you really should check it out.
Nhà Hàng Ngon, 160 Pasteur St, Saigon