High-level dining experience with ‘A little night music,’ that is not quite Mozart

(No.11, Vol.2, Nov 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

It was Sunday evening and high time for some soothing relaxation. I had taught English for sixteen hours over the weekend, going from class to class, down corridors with screaming children bumping into me. Body and soul had taken quite a battering. For company, I took the best possible – my wife and thirteen-year-old daughter. The location: the Grand Cafe in the new wing of the Grand Hotel, HCMC. Vertically – at least on the twentieth floor – this is far from the madding crowd. A feast of choice Vietnamese dishes and a barbecue of meats and Nha Trang deluxe seafood awaited us. The sultry night air, even if we were not quite at the altitude of the Austrian Alps, was to be filled with the sound of music. On the billing and on alternate evenings there is Jazz and Flamenco music. We chose to go on one of the latter days.

Grand Cafe's cooks at work

On arrival, there was draught Tiger beer and soft drinks for the girls. We were seated in a covered area, as a strong breeze was blowing. I got up to admire the views, as most guests do. Above the myriad streets loom the downtown skyscrapers. Most notable among them now is the Bitexco Tower, Saigon’s newest and tallest skyscraper. If you are lucky, you will catch it on one of those mystical nights when its top is covered with clouds, making it look like a dagger covered with a handkerchief. What you will not miss is the beauty of reflected city lights down on the meandering Saigon River, quite ordinary by day, but stunning in this evening attire. For the major part of the evening, we were able to transfer to ‘al fresco’ but just as we were leaving, there was a clamber and a rush for indoors, as a tropical downpour suddenly erupted.
And so to the eats. You can choose from the a la carte menu, but if you have anything of an appetite, it will not cost you much more to go in for the BBQ buffet at VND690,000++. If you drink more than a couple of glasses of the delicious fruity Chilean wine on offer or go in for their cocktails, you should upgrade to the free flow of drinks priced at VND890,000++. BBQ for the bairns is at VND590,000++.
The buffet table was spread with mostly Vietnamese fare. There were the local salad dishes and cold spring rolls. The hot dishes were rice and noodle dishes with chicken and fish. For my Vietnamese wife and I, the choicest treat was the crab in the shell cooked in tamarind sauce. When it was time for dessert there was fruit for my portly self, whilst I had the pleasure of watching my daughter stuff herself on cream puffs and cheese cake; things she does not normally get at home. Funnily enough, you have to request Vietnamese condiments, the table being set with such exotica as HP and Worcestershire sauces and American mustard.
For the pieces de resistance you head for the outdoor grill station. There are American cuts of beefsteaks, lamb chop, calamari, oysters and salmon, as well as scampi. By scampi I do not mean the breaded crustacean pieces that used to be popular as ‘pub grub’ in the U.K. and served in little baskets. I mean the small lobster also known as the langoustine. Served in a butter sauce, this in my opinion is a ‘must try’.
Half way through our meal, on the stage to the side of us, there appeared four local gentlemen in Hawaiian T shirts and Panama hats. ‘These guys are hardly dressed for flamenco music’, was my first thought. Furthermore, the keyboard, decidedly un-Spanish looking guitars and bongos did not appear to be the right instrumentation either. After a couple of South American numbers it was clear they had gotten hold of the wrong end of the drumstick and were labouring under the illusion that ‘Latin’ and ‘Flamenco’ were synonyms. I sent in a request for ‘cante hondo’ only to be met with the blankest of expresions. It is entirely forgiveable. All of us are guilty of cultural misunderstandings at times. As for myself, it was not until reaching adulthood that I found out that spaghetti was anything else than something that came out of a can and cut into small strips covered in tomato sauce.
The troupe was joined by a young lady who sang like a nightingale, but by judging by her mangled mispronunciation of ‘Quizas, quizas, quizas’, was certainly no Spanish speaker. As the night rolled on, the repertoire extended to brilliant renditions of the Rock classic ‘Hotel California’ and the rockabilly Country and Western ‘Jambalaya’ (on the Bayou) which had my fellow diners, mostly geriatric Australians, foot tapping away. The musicians were brilliant and the girl a real diva. They really jollied the evening along well. I only wish they could have got their labeling right. In retrospect, the dark Moorish and gypsy-style music with its accompanying dance of Indian origins might not have been as appropriate for such an evening.

Grilled scampi

The elderly Aussies were having more fun and contentment than a bunch of college students out on the town. I turned to one and asked if he agreed this was not flamenco. ‘Oh no’, he replied, ‘That’s the one with castanets.’ He went on to feebly joke, ‘Well, the young lady’s got castanets but they’re on her chest, not in her hands!’ Later I asked another gentleman from down under if he was enjoying the evening. ‘Superb’ was his reply, ‘And what a great country this is too!’ It turned out he was as pommy as myself, having emigrated from Yorkshire in 1965. The conversation then naturally turned to cricket and I got further entertainment as he recounted watching the antics of that great showman cum cricketer Sir Freddie Trueman at the Melbourne Cricket Club many years ago.

Photos Grand Hotel Saigon

The service was excellent but unobtrusive. The chef at the grill was a master showman with a dab hand at turning a steak. Having opted for the free flow, the waiters were the enemies of the empty glasses. When I asked the jolly maitre d' if he thought what we were listening to was flamenco, ‘Yes’ he politely replied. When I told him ‘Never in a million years it is’, ‘Yes’, he politely replied.
It is hard to think of a better local alternative, in terms of setting, quality and value, than to spend a weekend evening with family and/or friends, enjoying the luxurious dining and music-enhanced atmosphere of the newly-opened Grand Cafe. I may be guilty of mixing metaphors when I say that a band by any other name would smell as sweet. Next time I go, which hopefully will be soon, I think I might present the young diva with a pair of castanets.

Grand Cafe, 20th floor,
Grand Hotel Saigon, 8 Dong Khoi Street,
District 1, HCMC. Tel (08) 3824 5771 - 3915 5555 Email: banquetsales@grandhotel.vn, website: www.grandhotel.vn

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