A royal feast for the sense

(No.3, Vol.3, Apr 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Haute cuisine’ in Vietnam translates to ‘imperial Hue’ cuisine. This borrows from the court of Peking and also includes dishes specially concocted to please the Vietnamese emperors. That other French culinary term, ‘nouvelle cuisine,’ takes inspiration from its visually appealing use of colour and food ingredients for highly creative decoration. You do not have to travel to Hue to enjoy it. The aptly regally named Rex Hotel is the place in HCMC to savour it at perfection. This is not only my opinion, but also that of Mrs de Rouvray, a noted food connoisseur in her own right and native born and bred lass of the ‘Ancient Capital’.
The Cung Dinh Restaurant on the ground floor of the Rex is at once a long-standing feature of the Ho Chi Minh dining scene and also new. I have known it from the first day I arrived in HCMC in the year 2000. It was quite conspicuous to anyone passing by the rear of the hotel on Pasteur Street. You could see quite clearly the highly ornate dark wooden furnishings, redolent of the Imperial Palace in Hue and it was clear that cultural dining took place here on a nightly basis. Now, this area of the hotel is being rebuilt and the restaurant has recently been relocated to what used to be the back lobby area. The decor takes advantage of the well-lit and spacious flooring. The Imperial Hue theme has been toned down somewhat without losing the ambiance of the bygone glory days. The columns have been decorated in Imperial style, the ceiling lights and lampshades are ancient in design and there are murals and wall paintings to transport you back in time.

Rice cooked with lotus seed. Photo: Rex Hotel

Further adding to the colour and gaiety of the evening were the traditional garbs of the musicians, each in a different hue. They played instruments the like of which was last seen in the West in medieval times. One was on the mandolin and two others on different species of zither. There was a flautist and a percussionist with a set of drums. The line-up was completed by a female vocalist. The lyrics of the songs made ample mention of Hue City. My wife even pointed out to me a reference to Con Hen, an island in the Perfume River famed for its river mussels, which we have visited. They filled the air with exotic melodies for over an hour. At one point the rallentando of the shrill, bird-like music was as fiery as a gypsy or flamenco dance.
My wife, daughter and I were treated to a seven-course set meal. We began with something light - the pomelo salad with shrimp and pork, presented in a carved-out pomelo with the top lopped off, put to one side and shaped into a star. This was the sweeter version of the grapefruit-like fruit.
Next came classic crispy spring rolls spiked with toothpicks into the sides of a scooped-out pineapple. Throughout the meal, our waiter, Mr Tuan, played an active part in feeding us. With a deft and magician-like swoop of his arm, morsels would unobtrusively land in our bowls.
The third dish was the grilled snail wrapped in la lot, which if you have ever had Lebanese food, closely resembles stuffed vine leaves (dolmadhes). They are fine little appetisers to pop into the mouth.
Minced grilled beef with lemongrass was the fourth treat. The citrusy flavour was enhanced with the stems of the lemongrass serving as the spits upon which they had been barbecued. They looked like mini kebabs.

Pomelo salad with shrimp and pork. Photo: Rex Hotel

Then came a fish dish-white fish, which would have made great fish fingers-which would have pleased our thirteen-year old-but would have not befitted this oriental culinary assemblage. This was the steamed sea bass-Hong Kong style-referring to the way the filleted morsels are presented in curled-up fashion. The freshness and softness of this fish were exquisite.
At this point, I was starting to take to heart something our daughter had said earlier on by way of criticism of Imperial Hue food and I have heard this from other Vietnamese too-the portions are too small. Well, come on, you are not going to enjoy such a cultural evening lingering over good conservation if you are going to eat in the “slap it down and put away” style. I had been greatly enjoying my food, but I too was beginning to wonder if I were to walk away from this meal without the need to further raid the larder on return home. But the Rex chef had something up his sleeve to shoot this one down. Along came a dish of my favourite oriental vegetable ‘pak choi’ or ‘spoon cabbage’ as it is more quaintly known. To ensure every nook and cranny of would be filled, this came with rice cooked with lotus seed to be scooped out of a wrapping of lotus leaves-very filling.
The meal was rounded off in the traditional style with a colourfully arranged dish of mixed tropical fruits.
I could not find anything to fault the food and turned around to my wife to garner her opinion. ‘A straight ten’ was the answer. This, I can tell you, is rarely bestowed upon a restaurant by ‘Madame Gourmet.’
A final word: all this luxury and tip-top service does not come cheaply. This is a five-star hotel in Vietnam’s most expensive square mile. The fifty-strong party of Norwegian tourists present that evening would certainly not have batted an eyelid at the prices; I have visited the land of the fjords and it is one of the most expensive in the world. I asked the manageress what this seven-course meal cost, but she could only inform me it depended on the agreement with the tour group. If you eat here a la carte, the prices of the drinks we had will give you an idea of what you will pay. La Vie water is at VND65,000, a medium sized glass of Heineken on draught at VND85,000 and the daughter’s chocolate milkshake was 140,000 dongs. You need to add tax to these prices. However, if you factor in the live entertainment this makes for not such expensive evening.
So if you are looking for more than just a great meal, but a whole evening’s cultural entertainment with brand Vietnam firmly stamped on it, the Cung Dinh restaurant at The Rex certainly delivers in style. The experience will appeal to many kinds of people. Vietnamese businessmen would certainly impress foreign partners by bringing them here. If you are in the country as a tourist, this is a must. You will come away with an appreciation of Vietnamese art and music, as well as its cuisine. Then also, as I found out, it is a great place to take the family. In short this is a visual, auditory and ‘degustatorial beanfeast’.

Cung Dinh Restaurant at Rex Hotel
141 Nguyen Hue St, Ben Nghe Ward, Dist.1, Ho Chi Minh City. Tel: (08) 3829-2185

By Pip de Rouvray
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