On not boarding a magic carpet

Vietnam Heritage, February 2011 -- My motivation for visiting Pasha's Turkish restaurant was mainly nostalgia. At various times in my life I have relied on Turkish food both for inexpensive sustenance as a single man and for comfort in places like Saudi Arabia, where there is little public entertainment. I first came across it as a student in London where the ubiquitous Turkish takeaway, which served up doner and shish kebab pitta-bread sandwiches, often provided me with my evening meal. I can truly say I have always found Turkish food delicious and, until the other day, never disappointing.
The Pasha restaurant is a relatively new kid on the Dong Du Street, District 1 HCMC restaurant block. Situated as it is, opposite the Indian mosque, it is well placed to attract a Muslim clientele. However, the day I visited my fellow diners were a middle-aged Western lady, a group of raucous Australians and a Hindu-looking Indian family. The website also does not seek to alienate the Islamic fraternity and only mentions the non-alcoholic drinks it serves. This is a good place to escape the demon alcohol, though there is a good grape-wine list and even Tiger and Foster beers on draught.
The website also states the place is run by a husband-and-wife Turkish team, but when I dined, and on two previous reconnaissance trips, they were nowhere to be seen. It would have been great to have met and chatted with them but Mein Hosts obviously had other fish to fry.
For my meal at Pasha’s I budgeted $25. In central HCMC I figured I ought to get a full meal together with coffee and a sweet course at this price. After all, this is perfectly possible at the Sheraton, which is in the same street. I was to discover that this budget did not stretch too far at Pasha’s, even at lunchtime.
The restaurant has an attractive exterior. A stereotypical picture of an eponymous Pasha from bygone Ottoman Empire days beckons one inside. You are thus drawn into a spick and span interior full of light and myriad sparking clean glasses hanging from the bar ceiling. I ensconced myself at a fine table toward the rear and ordered a mango ayran as an aperitif. This is a yoghurt drink which normally goes under the name of buttermilk in English. There is little in the decor here to give the feeling of being in Istanbul or Ankara. There are no photographs of bridges over the Bosphorus or of Turkish families in traditional garb. Not even an Oriental rug or tapestry is on display. The glass lampshades on the ceiling lights are, however, of the highly decorative crystal one would expect to see in a Damascus bazaar. On one wall, bizarrely, there are three white clay friezes. The first has a Hindu Indian theme. The second is of the scene from Greek mythology in which Zeus, in the form of a swan, seduces a naked Leda. The third depicts a bearded Assyrian king with the body of a mythological winged creature.
The ayran arrives and, at VND94,000 including VAT, was not only oversalted (one must use only a dash of sodium chloride to flavour such a beverage), but also well overpriced for liquid yoghurt. However, I found it enjoyable. I perused the menu. No lunchtime set menu inclusive of coffee and dessert here. I was forced to go ‘à la carte’, so I chose the ‘Mericmak Corbasi’, a lentil soup, as a starter. A rather sad looking bowl of brown liquid arrived. I expected a basket of unleavened loaves to accompany it. Usually in the Middle East you eat this dish by mopping it up with bread. However, I had to ask for it from the, incidentally, very attentive waiter, who returned with two small squares (Vietnamese style) of garlic bread. This only further reminds me I have not left Saigon. The soup is lukewarm but nevertheless the spicy mixture delivers a great taste, marking it out from the Arab version of lentil soup to which I am more accustomed.
At this point I regret to inform you the waiter had deposited alongside my unfinished ayran a bottle of Italian mineral water. I checked with the waiter and discovered that this was no free gift and in fact would have added another VND90,000 to the bill. What a price to pay for a drop of Adam’s ale! Now, this kind of attempted trick guarantees I will not be a return customer. The embarrassed waiter quickly denuded the table of the offending beverage.
On to my choice of a pièce de résistance. The Turks are a great herding nation, having descended from the steppes of Central Asia, so my natural choice for this was the famous Lamb Shish Kebab. This also arrived lukewarm and bathed in the same not unpleasant spicy sauce as the soup. I had expected it to be served Turkish-style on a bed of pilaff rice with fresh vegetables. Instead it came Vietnamese-style with rice in a mound à la ‘Com Phu’ and the vegetables were a garlicky cold salad of chopped tomatoes and bell peppers with corn. This was not really what the doctor ordered! I had asked for the skewered lamb cubes to be cooked medium but they arrived rare. Nevertheless the meat melted in the mouth and was quite delicious. At last I felt I had something positive to report about, only to find the final cube half gristle and, horror of horrors, a small piece of bone attached.
I would have liked to have finished off with a Turkish coffee and an Oriental sweet, such as their baklava, which is of shredded wheat soaked in honey with pistachios, but my budget did not run to it. Unbelievably, the bill came to VND468,900. Had I paid it in dollars it would have been $24.79, as they operated an unfavourable rate of VND18,900 to the dollar when the normal rate was around VND20,000.
For all this I never achieved my escapist objective. The decor failed to take me anywhere and the food had Vietnamese characteristics. Could the background music at least have had me back on the Thracian and Anatolian plains? Actually they played tinny jazzed up samba music with banal lyrics such as ‘Oye Como Va’ and  ‘Siempre amore, I cannot get enough’, which might have referred to the meal except that it did not exactly aid the digestion.
As I exited the door stumbling over a couple of motorbikes parked on the pavement, I felt, infact, left with little to digest and never having really left Saigon at all.

Reviewed by Ritch Pickens
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