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Anticipation on the No 4 bus

(No.8, Vol.2, August 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine,Advertorial)

When I first arrived in Vietnam in 1997, the concept of putting numerous dishes on one table and inviting guests to serve themselves was novel to the locals. Not so these days but in many quarters the ‘buffet’ has acquired a dubious reputation. Tired dishes served up from yesterday and lack of replenishment of favoured delicacies, even sometimes to the extent that if you arrive late there may be little left to savour are the main complaints. However, one place where you can be assured of freshness and largesse is the ‘Starcity Saigon Hotel’. This is located on the major thoroughfare of Nguyen Van Troi near the airport. The lunchtime buffet changes from month to month. For example, the month before I went along it was ‘Italian’ and for August it will be ‘Malaysian’. The very versatile chef, Malay Mr Azahar, will be batting on his own wicket so it promises to be quite a show. Along with my twelve-year-old daughter, who already knows a thing or two about food, I experienced fresh fruits of the deep and more at July’s seafood bonanza of a buffet.
Living as I do in the heart of the city, within walking distance of many top hotels and food streets in Ben Nghe Ward, District 1, you would need to be blind and totally bereft of a sense of smell not to find a place at which to eat out according to your taste within five minutes. Nevertheless, I found it well worth my while to think outside the box and trek out to Starcity Saigon for lunch. Actually, it was not much of a trek. I could have got there in around fifteen minutes simply by jumping into a taxi. However, it was almost as easy to get there for next to no money by taking the No 4 bus. This I hailed from alongside the Rex Hotel and it stopped right at the door of the Starcity. What is more, for the return journey the stop is right opposite.
We walked into the hotel lobby full of space, light and modern furnishings. No Vietnam heritage here, outwardly at least. This new hotel celebrates Vietnam’s place as an emergent nation in the twenty first century and looks to the future. We were greeted by manager Miss Nguyen Thoai Mai Vi and led to the ‘Mezzanine Restaurant’. Here, too, the decor is refreshingly modern, simple and relaxing with nothing to distract from the serious business of enjoying your food. Brazilan samba and tamla Motown music provided further mood.


StarCity Saigon Hotel’s Executive Chef Mr. Ahmad Azaharuddin Omar

Almost like an altar in a cathedral, the first thing that meets the eye is the joyful display of seafood set on shimmering ice at the central table. There, waiting to be devoured, were slices of smoked salmon, clams, oysters, scallops, mussels and blue swimmer crabs, which for the last fifteen years I have known only by the Vietnamese word ‘ghẹ’, – what a revelation for me to find out it has such a beautiful English name. The mussels were a local variety, small and milky white with a slightly creamy taste. Alongside the main players in their shells, stamping a firm international flavour on to the proceedings, came that Asian enhancement to nature’s bounty, Japanese sushi and sashimi – great to start off with.
At the back of the table the cornucopia extended to cooked meats, salads and cheeses, together with many condiments both western and Asian, among which I cite olive oil, Italian balsam gourmet vinegar and even good old English HP sauce. I immediately decided my dessert would be a complementary three country cheese platter with crackers consisting of milky hard Swiss Gruyère, gooey French Camembert and twangy, noble-rot English Stilton.
As if this were not enough to provide the gourmet, or in this case the glutton, with excuses for multiple trips to the table there was a manned grill station for king prawns and succulent beef strips. When it comes to a buffet I am always mindful of that awesome rubric that stood at the head of school examination papers when I was a lad, ‘Attempt all’.
Only later and halfway through the meal did I note there was another long table with whole steamed fish, roast chicken, fried rice and international vegetable dishes. Seafood may have had the starring role here, but alongside, there was a cast of thousands. There was something for everyone whatever the taste or cultural background.
In the middle of our dining table was an attractive bowl of liquid with a slice of lemon in it. I wondered if Miss Vi, knowing I was English, thought I might be like ‘Mr Bean’. But no fooling me. I knew it was it was not soup but a finger dip! Miss Vi hails from Dalat that land of fresh vegetables and temperate climate fruits. She was excellent company and took great care of my daughter chattering away in Vietnamese with her. So much so that it prompted the quote, ‘She is just like an elder sister’ from little Miss Angela Pickens.


smoked salmon at StarCity’s buffet
Photos: StarCity Saigon Hotel

One of the main reasons for bringing along the aforementioned young lady is having someone to report to you on the sweet courses. I, with the physique of Friar Tuck, stay well away from such temptation and take my sugar mainly in malt beverages. By the way, I forgot to mention a beer or soft drink is included in the price. I had a Japanese Sapporo beer with a great sweet taste deriving from the rice used in its brewing.
Our dessert specialist set to work with gusto. She demolished an innocent-looking crême caramel before moving on to a less familiar chocolate mousse. This was awarded high marks. Next came an individual lemon cake with a fresh strawberry on top, which also met with approval. Still she had room for something entirely new – the ‘Pecan Pie’. This was given the euphemism ‘interesting’. Somewhere along the way she ate her first walnut. Not surprisingly for a child, this was also met with some bemusement. Hovering by the dessert counter with her as she made her choices, the waitress, not to know I had not arrived in the country the day before, tried to get me interested in the local speciality of ‘chè’. I pointed to my waistline as an excuse to decline the offer but if you are new to this country this sweet, a dessert soup, which comes in many flavours, is something you should try.
Miss Vi, anxious to let us know there was more to her hotel than just a splendid buffet led us on a post prandial tour of her hotel. There is everything you would expect of a first-class four-star hotel. Aside from spacious rooms with all creature comforts, there are meeting rooms and ballrooms equipped with plush lightings and furnishings. On the second floor is a spa and fitness centre and an outdoor swimming pool. If your bargaining skills are up to it, you may be able to have a dip in the pool included in the price of your buffet. In a corner of the lobby is a bar equipped with a wide screen which attracts a lot of people for sporting events. If you are ever unlucky enough to suffer a long delay at Tan Son Nhat airport, I hope you will lucky enough to be assigned this hotel.
I spoke to chef Mr. Ahmad Azaharuddin Omar. He told me he liked to keep things simple and included items that would be familiar and enjoyable to a wide range of guests. A buffet for sure is not the place to savour Chef’s latest creations. The monthly- changing central theme does allow for a new adventure, however, while the boad range of dishes will ensure that people of all ages, tastes and backgrounds will come away from this spread more than satisfied. I was very happy that I had made the effort to get away from my usual pasture lands.
The price of the buffet was VND499,000++.

StarCity Saigon Hotel
144 Nguyen Van Troi St,
Phu Nhuan Dist., Ho Chi Minh City
Tel: (08) 3999-8888, www.starcitysaigon.vn

By Ritch Pickens
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