(No.1, Vol.7,Feb-Mar 2017 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)
We chuckled quite a lot when I told my family I was going to have dinner at a restaurant named ‘Di Mai’. That means ‘Auntie Mai’. That is my wife's name and she is an aunt to quite a few people. Not only that, she is a great cook and normally I do not need to step out of doors to enjoy great Vietnamese food. But dining out is more than just eating great grub. It has to involve a thematic experience and the human touch. Restaurant Di Mai which lies but a stone's throw from Saigon's Ben Thanh Market delivers just that.
The second you go through the door you are struck by the warm, bright and subtly subdued lighting: crimson and black lampshades from the ceiling beckon you in. It seems so modern, but there is retro here too. What is that in the middle? It is a pick-up truck from the middle of the last century deftly converted to seating for a party of six. There is the cabin in the driver's seat sits the cashier with a computer till alongside her. On shelves sit an array of ceramic pots, pans and other cooking utensils of yesteryear. On the wall is a photo tableau of girls of yesteryear in their long flowing robes.
Then there is a banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich) bar that looks as if it has been taken in from the street but smartened up. In the salad station nearby, you watch as a chef tosses up the fresh vegetables in a bowl that might have been in vogue in great - grandma's days. Next to this, on view from the street and terrace, is the bar where the cold teas and fresh fruit cocktails this place is famed for are concocted. Behind a glass window is the spotlessly clean open main kitchen and alongside that is the dessert station where the Vietnamese sweet soups are prepared. Right down to the mosaic tiles and custom made hand wipes with a picture of a smiling Di Mai as a postage stamp on the wrapper, the whole atmosphere is original and paradoxical. You are comfortably indoors and yet there are non-threatening elements of the street around you. You are in the most modern of rooms, but this haunt has its relics of the past.
I was accompanied by my daughter who is in her last year at high school and wishes to go on to study interior design. She too was impressed by the decor and ambiance. However, the proof a good restaurant has to be, as with the pudding, in the eating. Here is an account of the dishes we enjoyed.
There is an extensive wine, beer, and soft drinks list but we decided to go for what this place is well known for; namely the fruit cocktails. Incidentally, along with the baguette sandwiches these can be bought to take away. They came in old-fashioned bottles with swing back stoppers — another hard back. I had the ‘Mr Summer’, which is mango, passion fruit and honey garnished with a half slice of passion fruit. My daughter had the healthier ‘Detox’ - aptly named as it consists of beetroot, carrot and apple. These refreshing and pulpy drinks are a ‘must try’.
The ‘Goi Vit’: - Vietnamese Duck salad
It is good to try a least one cold dish and we had the duck salad-crispy shredded cabbage with mouth-watering tiny slices of duck breast.
The Canh Bo Di Mai
This was served in a ceramic bowl; strips of beef shank in a broth of onions herbs and ginger. Great tropical taste.
Com Hai San
The classic seafood rice dish, mainly small prawns with the fluffiest bed of white rice.
Pork ribs marinated in ginger and chilli - I could say finger licking good but that might invoke litigation for copyright infringement by a well-known fast food chain.
Soya Bean Dessert
Dessert is a no-no for me. Vietnam is not noted for its desserts, but you should try one of the many sweet soups on offer here (Che). My daughter had a kind of blancmange made from soya bean as it is favourite of hers which she enjoys when she visits Hue, the family's home town. Whilst the taste here was different to the Hue version she still enjoyed it.
All that served with hard and soft crackers was quite enough to pleasure the taste buds and satiate the stomach. We went home pleasantly replete.
You are probably asking how affordable this restaurant could be. Despite the high quality and uniqueness, I would put it in the mid-range bracket. The fruit cocktails on offer cost between 55,000 and 85,000 dongs. The main dishes above were from VND85,000 to VND120,000. Add ten per cent in tax to these prices.
It was overall a very satisfying dining experience. I felt as if I had had only a mere taste of what this restaurant offers and would love to return to sample more. In the meantime, I am happy to continue to savour the yummy home cooking of the Auntie Mai I have in my house - my wife! You guys are not so lucky as I am and will have to try Di Mai restaurant but it is of itself a very special and unique place to dine on Vietnamese cuisine.
The Di Mai Restaurant is at 136-138 Le Thi Hong Gam Street, District 1, HCMC. It is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tel: (08) 3821-7788.