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Mandarine Restaurant: Where the finest Vietnamese dining rules

No.3, Vol.12, November - December 2015


Photos: Mandarine Restaurant

Ngo Van Nam Street is a narrow lane that connects Le Thanh Ton Street in downtown HCMC with the Saigon River. It is packed with high-end restaurants. Recently, I learned that it was the owners of the ‘Mandarine’ who had the bold idea of locating a restaurant some twenty years ago in what was then a sleepy backwater; all else followed. When I dined there myself, I found out that the trailblazing does not end there. There are some innovative dishes on the menu. The finest tropical hardwood furniture, the exquisite wooden wall carvings, a calligraphy tapestry spelling out the word Mandarine and blue and white faience crockery were all specially commissioned for this restaurant. With live music playing in the background provided by a trio of pianist, fiddler and cellist (on some days of the week there is a traditional Vietnamese music ensemble), for me it all added up to relaxing and edifying way to spend two and a half hours of an evening.
I ate Table d'Hote, except that the ‘Hote’ was actually a Hostess, Madame Pham Linh, the sales manageress. The Mandarine is a showcase restaurant popular with tourists, government officials, corporate parties and business people entertaining clients. At the entrance, you can see photographs of some very famous people who have eaten here, including King Juan Carlos of Spain, Junichiro Koizumi, once Prime Minister of Japan, who attended the same college as I did and a beaming former U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice. Dining alongside us that evening, there was a group of greying European tourists, some Taiwanese business folk and from behind an oriental screen came the lively and dulcet tones of the Singaporean English of a group who were obviously having a great time together.

Photos: Mandarine Restaurant

There are three levels of dining space. On the ground floor, tables are set in a wonderful wine cellar. Were it not for the oriental décor, you would think you were in a Southern European country. There are hundreds of wines from all over the world in bottles and in barrels-enough to sink a battleship! The top floor is reserved for private groups. We dined at the mid-level with the trio of musicians in view below us over the balustrade.
First to arrive at our table, preceding the six courses, were a bowl of soya nuts and some slices of pickled mango. Then came an appetiser - Spring Rolls Mandarine style. The stuffing was mainly shrimp and bamboo sprouts and whilst the outer coating was smooth, yet the taste was crisp. The garnishing and decoration of this dish was Imperial style. It included an intricate cockerel carved out of a carrot. Quite a culinary feat by the chef, I thought and a great overture for the rest of the performance.

Photos: Mandarine Restaurant

Next came the banana blossom salad with grilled beef. The salad was in a sweet-tasting marinade and you had to eat through a lot of it to uncover the succulent strips of beef. ‘The cow is hiding under the haystack,’ I remarked, adding that Vietnamese beef was great in Vietnamese dishes with no need to use imports for this dish. Miss Linh agreed. ‘Actually’, she said, ‘Vietnamese beef is a must for our most famous dish: Pho Bo - Beef Noodle Soup.’
The next dish I had ordered specially, as Mandarine is famous for it. This was the roasted duck, ‘Mandarine style’. It is so mouth-wateringly delicious I would walk a million miles for it. It has taken its inspiration from the French, but here tangerines and mandarins are used to make the sauce with duck fat added for a smooth, balanced flavour. The strips of tender duck dipped in this sauce are heavenly.

Photos: Mandarine Restaurant

Also, familiar at first sight to a Westerner, was the grilled pork ribs. But the marinade with cinnamon was distinctly oriental. Another spice-clove-was also included in the presentation
I was just thinking to myself that this was the first time I had eaten a meal in Vietnam without rice, when the last main dish arrived, which contained a substantial portion of rice noodle vermicelli. This was the sautéed white fish, Họ Đoàn style. This uses a large amount of the herb dill for the flavouring. I felt very special as the cook herself came in with a wheeled table holding the ingredients and cooking utensils to prepare this dish beside us.

Photos: Mandarine Restaurant

By this time, I was so full I was about to hold up a white flag in surrender, but Miss Linh insisted on dessert. Dessert in Vietnam is normally healthy fresh fruit but Miss Linh was intent on my upholding my sinful Western ways. The fruit was flambéed mango and banana with a scoop of vanilla. Here again, the chef was at hand to cook before us with a flame-throwing performance. If you have to dig your grave with your teeth then this is the dish for it!
If you looking for a fine Vietnamese dining experience with excellence in every aspect-decor and atmosphere, service, accompanying music and above all cuisine, ‘Mandarine’ is spot on. It is quite literally fit for a king. I bet King Juan Carlos did not go back to his palace and paella without fond memories and a long after taste of ‘Mandarine’!n

Mandarine Restaurant
11A Ngo Van Nam St, Dist 1, HCMC
Tel: (08) 3822-9783
Lunch 11.30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner 5.30 p.m. to 10.45 p.m.


By Pip de Rouvray
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