Eating like a local in Saigon

It was a balmy night in Saigon, and I had found myself perched atop a low plastic stool, alternating between sucking on a cold brew and sea snails seasoned generously with chilli and salt.

It was a completely unexpected foray into the food scene of Saigon, and I was having the best time of my life.

How I got there, on the eve of my last day in Ho Chi Minh City could only be described as pure good luck.

If you know me, you know I travel for two things – adventure and food.

So I was slightly disappointed when after one full day in Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon, I hadn’t found any leads on truly mind-blowing Vietnamese food. I was acutely aware that with only four days in this city, time was against me.

Being a non-pork eater in Asia has proven to be quite a barrier to enjoying the best that places like Thailand, Bali and Vietnam have to offer. Of course, I wanted to try banh mi and pho in Vietnam, but the best versions of those dishes are made with animals that go oink and I just can’t.

So I had kind of resigned myself to an unremarkable foodie fate when my Airbnb host Mai stopped me on my way out one day. She asked if I was interested in joining her on a food tour that she was testing out for guests in the Airbnb.

At the time I was still waffling between two other food tours and trying to schedule my tours for the next few days. I told her I would get back to her.

The following day I had my timing sorted out enough to say what the heck, and I messaged Mai to say she could count me in.

Two nights later Mai and Linh (her co-manager) met me at the apartment. I was kind of thrilled to find out I was the only one going on the tour with them. I love a personalised experience.

I hopped on the back of Mai’s motorcycle and we sped off into the night, out of District 1 and through the winding streets of Saigon, through hundreds – maybe thousands – of other scooter-bound motorists to District 10.

There we found Bánh Canh Ghẹ, a restaurant I am told is named after the main dish served there, so guess what we were going to have.

That’s right – Bánh Canh Ghẹ!

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-24,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-Y
Bánh Canh Ghẹ is essentially a crab noodle soup. The broth itself was thick and spicy, while slightly sweet at the same time (coconut milk perhaps). Swimming in the broth was a miscellanea of fish meat, spices, herbs, thick and meaty udon noodles, a few crunchy puffs (the name of these escape me) and an entire crab.

It was frickin’ delicious.

It was an amalgamation of some of my favourite things – seafood, udon noodles, spice, coconut and it was the exact thing I had been after in Saigon. Everyone eating at the restaurant appeared to be a local, I was getting the real deal.

Once we finished up with our bánh canh ghẹ we headed back to the bikes and I hopped back on the back of Mai’s scooter to zoom to the next location on our food tour.

Luckily for me, I’m a pretty adventurous and trusting person. So I actually wasn’t put off at all when Mai and Linh turned down a dimly lit alleyway off the main street, and pulled up alongside an open-air room, clamouring with locals, packed to capacity with low metal tables and plastic chairs.

We were at the snail spot I mentioned earlier – Quán Ốc Như.

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-24,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-Y

I gave Mai and Linh full authority on what to order – this wasn’t exactly the kind of place where I could peruse a menu.

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-24,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-Y

After some animated deliberation with a waiter, they settled on chilli salt sea snails, snails in a milky coconut broth, clams in lemongrass broth and cockles in an assortment of sauces. Despite my protestation that I absolutely do not drink beer, Linh ordered me a Saigon beer anyway, insisting that this was how the locals did it.

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-24,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-Y

Believe you me, no one was as surprised as me when that bottle hit the table empty. The beer, as it turned out, was the perfect accompaniment to the salty, chewy molluscs.

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-24,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-Y

As much as the food, I was thoroughly enjoying my company. Mai and Linh – both Vietnamese girls in their early 20s – made me feel like I was shooting the breeze with friends back home.

Despite my sometimes frosty exterior, I actually get along very well with people most of the time. We chatted about boys (I showed them pictures of my boyfriend which got them oohing and aahing), our careers, travelling and just general challenges they faced being bold young women in a somewhat conservative society.

Beer and sea snails safely tucked away in the confines of our bellies, we soldiered on to the next and final stop – dessert.

Vietnam, like most of the South East Asian countries I’ve visited, has a vibrant street food culture. Vietnam pavements are often lined with plastic stools and low metal or wooden tables. At any point in the day, you can observe a multitude of locals enjoying a meal amidst the minimalist furnishings, served by street side cooks.

We pulled up alongside one of these vendors, the girls giggling excitedly while promising me ‘the best ice cream in Saigon’.

I’m not a huge ice cream fan by any stretch but I’ve experienced some of the most satisfying ice cream in this part of the world – due in large part to their commitment to coconut. I looooove coconut so I’m always thrilled to dig into a scoop of coconut ice cream and find chunks of coconut jelly ensconced within.

This particular coconut ice cream was also topped with toasted coconut and served in a coconut shell.

Talk about staying on theme.

Also in this coconut shell? Purple sweet rice, corn and peanuts (yuck). I picked the peanuts off but everything else was bomb.

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-24,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-Y

Following our sweet treat, the girls and I headed back to our apartment building.

Back at the base, the girls said that as they were just doing a test run of the tour, they’d just divvy up the damage from the night and we’d split the cost evenly between us.

My grand total for a night of delicious Vietnamese food and great company? Roughly $16 USD.

Of course, once the ladies launch this tour officially it’ll set their customers back a bit more but even at four times this cost, I’d say the experience is totally worth it.

As a bonus, the following day I went to a restaurant that had been featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations in search of another traditional Vietnamese dish – bánh xèo.

Bánh xèo is basically a Vietnamese crepe, stuffed with assorted veggies and some kind of protein.

I headed to Bánh Xèo 46A on the back of my Grab motorcycle. It was evident I’d shown up during the lunch rush but one of the perks of eating alone is that there is almost always a spare single seat somewhere to accommodate me.

I foolishly ordered some fried calamari to start, ignorant to the size of the bánh xèo that would be heading my way in a few.

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-24,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-Y

I was more than a little puzzled when the waiter plopped a plate of greens in front of me – pretty sure I didn’t order a very plain salad with this meal.

I panicked.

What was the deal with this lettuce? A quick glance around provided me with a lead – it was no mistake, it had to do with the bánh xèo.

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-24,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-Y

I literally googled “bánh xèo” and “lettuce”, and found a YouTube video demonstrating the accepted way to eat bánh xèo – first by tearing off a piece of the crepe, placing it atop the lettuce, rolling it tightly then dipping it into the sauce they served with the meal – a kind of fish sauce and chili concoction.

The bánh xèo was massive; I actually read in one blog that bánh xèo is prepared a little differently across Vietnam, but that the crepes in Saigon were typically large.

No lie.

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-24,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-Y

The final verdict – definitely delicious but way too much for me to finish in one go. This might be a meal that’s better shared with friends.

I know I barely even scratched the surface of Vietnamese food. I’ve already resolved to return so I can travel to Central and North Vietnam and try all the regional dishes.

That’s all for now, hope this titillated your inner foodie a bit.

Until next time!

Advertisements

5 food spots you shouldn’t miss in NYC

I spend a lot of time in the Big Apple.
Well…relatively…considering I only visit two or three times a year.
Since I’ve spent the better part of all my visits for the last four or five years eating my way through New York City, I’m constantly giving restaurant recommendations to friends and family heading there. So, I thought – why not make life a little easier for everyone and put my top eateries in a blog post?
This list is by no means exhaustive, of course. New York is a veritable foodie playground and I can never quite seem to get through my restaurant wishlist. These are the best of my best so far.

Totto Ramen

 

It was a chilly Halloween night about two years ago when my friends Ashanna and Anand and I stumbled upon a tiny ramen-ya in a Hell’s Kitchen basement. The growing line outside the restaurant let us know the wait would be worth it, even though temperatures were below 10°.
I don’t eat pork so I wasn’t able to partake of the signature ramen dish, but the chicken stock ramen remains to this day the best I’ve ever had in New York City and you HAVE to trust me on that because I eat A LOT of ramen…

Dominique Ansel Kitchen

 

While on a rushed trip to Greenwich Village for Ladurée macarons, my best friend Sandi and I ducked into an inconspicuous bakery for a cup of coffee. After a few minutes, we realized we had happened upon the bakery of the man who had invented THE food fad of our generation – the cronut. While we didn’t get cronuts that day (people start lining up at 6am) we did make a point to return on our next trip to NYC. By then though, the Dominique Ansel Kitchen was open for business, so that became our choice for breakfast since there was seating and a wider range of dishes available there. If you love baked goods, surrender yourself to Ansel. Be warned though – there IS such a thing as sugar overload, and I guarantee you’ll get it here.

Jack’s Wife Freda

 

I don’t often return repeatedly to restaurants (because there’s so much to eat in NYC) but when I do, I go back to Jack’s Wife Freda. My go-to dish is the Madame Freda, a pressed sandwich with duck prosciutto and a sunny side up egg, but I can also vouch for the Rose Water Waffles if sweet is more your thing. The place is compact with communal seating and gets PACKED so I would recommend making reservations (if you’re a table of four or more) or going on a weekday.

The Boil

 

Every trip to NYC I say I want to go to a crab boil and every trip to NYC I never make it. This time around was different though, and I finally got to this restaurant that I was put on to by my friend Makeela. My boyfriend and I settled in in our very fashionable bib and rubber gloves and got to work on a bag of 1/2 lb lobster and 1lb of shrimp. By the end of the night I was literally licking the bag and my gloves trying to get every bit of sauce off them (not even lying).

Sweet Chick

 

Sweet Chick is a restaurant that has been on my radar for ages. Apart from the fact that it’s a top-rated brunch spot in the uber-trendy Williamsburg neighbourhood, it’s owned by a Trini! I finally got around to visiting Sweet Chick on my last trip to NYC and I have to proclaim – Best. Chicken. And. Waffles. Ever. The wait staff is also super friendly…if you’re into that kind of thing. The place was pretty full when I visited (we sat at the bar), so it’s a good idea to head there early o’ clock to beat the crowd.
So there you have it – my top 5 spots to hit the next time you’re in NYC.
Tell them Ceola sent you, they’ll be like “Who?”

Out & About // Off Menu

Oh Fanatic Kitchen Studio…I just can’t quit you. Ha. Jk. I never tried to quit you.

It’s time for a run down of round 2 of that delightful dining experience – Off Menu. Chefs Peru and Juman had an interesting ingredient combination to tackle this time around with nutmeg and mango being the two selected by the previous audience. Mango, I was excited about, nutmeg…not so much. But as it turns out, I needn’t have worried, because the nutmeg proved to be a very quiet accompaniment to the dishes served, letting mango be the aggressor for this tasting.

The format was switched up a bit from the last time – instead of plated service from beginning to end, the first three dishes were served cocktail style, while guests were invited to mingle and chat over some delicious piña colada creations with just a hint of mango. The first course was probably my favourite morsel of the night – a nutmeg scented chicken in mango summer roll with a nutmeg gastrique. Seriously tried going back for as many of these as possible and eventually got cut off. Something about ‘other guests’. Bah. Humbug.

20140611-073030-27030551.jpg

The next passed item was shrimp poached in zesty nutmeg infused starch water with a pickled mango slaw. I recall really enjoying the slaw up top. It was basically like julienned mango chow. The shrimp, also quite good. I fear though that my palate is not developed enough to distinguish nutmeg flavours, so I can’t comment on what effect, if any, the nutmeg infused starch water had on the overall taste profile.

20140611-073030-27030995.jpg

Next came an item that I think everyone was really looking forward to. Always ones to experiment with new and interesting techniques, the Chefs created a mango chow foam (yes…mango. chow. foam. Let that sink in) topped with nutmeg scented cotton candy. A fleeting but tantalising sensation on your tongue. The mango chow foam was light and tangy, and dissipated almost immediately once you put it in your mouth. As for the cotton candy…well we know that doesn’t last very long either. I won’t lie…I had more than a few of these – I made Chef Peru keep plating mango chow foam under the guise of needing a better picture and oh well, someone had to eat it after the picture was taken right? A really unique and interesting presentation of mango chow, 10/10 would try it again.

20140611-073031-27031435.jpg

The main course was served a little differently from the last time. This time we dined ‘family style’ with all the sides set out on the two tables, and guests free to serve themselves. Sides included roasted cherry tomatoes, string beans, green and white cauliflower, baby carrots and orzo tossed in a parsley pesto. The protein for the entree was phyllo encased striploin with blue cheese and mango, coconut mango curry sauce and nutmeg, balsamic and herb salmon. I can’t say how that tasted because, always the debbie downer, I don’t eat beef. Instead I had nutmeg, balsamic and herb grouper. Admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of grouper, so I left quite a bit back on my plate, but the reports around me indicated that the striploin and salmon were delicious. I totally enjoyed the sides, funny enough, and perhaps had more than my fair share of orzo, because that orzo was ah-mah-zing.

Family Style At Fanatic

Family Style At Fanatic

Phyllo Encased Striploin with Blue Cheese and Mango, Coconut Mango Curry Sauce & Nutmeg, Balsamic and Herb Salmon

Phyllo Encased Striploin with Blue Cheese and Mango, Coconut Mango Curry Sauce & Nutmeg, Balsamic and Herb Salmon

My plate...not nearly as attractive as Chef Peru and Juman's plating...but one makes do.

My plate…not nearly as attractive as Chef Peru and Juman’s plating…but one makes do.

To top it all off, the dessert! Oh what a dessert it was – A mango crème brûlée with a mango and nutmeg reduction, fresh brunoise fruit salsa and mint. Delicious. Hands down the best possible way this meal could have ended. You might be saying…”Well that doesn’t look like a crème brûlée! Where’s the caramelisation?” Well…you see… the caramelisation lay under that delightful top layer of mango. The custard was sweet, but not too sweet, with a distinct mango flavour. The fruit salsa was a lovely tangy contrast to the overall sweet notes in the dish. Needless to say if I didn’t have room for this dessert, I found room and cleaned my plate.

20140611-073033-27033607.jpg

And so ended a night of fantastic food and great company. The next signature ingredient will be…wait for it…chocolate! I know there’s some folks who only just perked up reading that. Ha. You’re welcome.

 

 

 

Out & About // Oh What a Saturday!

Last weekend was murder. I don’t know why but it was THAT much harder to get out of bed to do anything at all, and yet, it was probably one of the busiest weekends I’ve had in a while. Because…life.

I kicked Saturday off with a trip to Vanity Fair with my co-workers Alina and Odini (Odini is a menswear designer from St. Vincent). I’m currently in the process of bribing Odini to make me some fab shirt-dresses so I’m being really nice to her until that happens (Hi Odini! You look radiant today!)

After browsing some fab fabrics, Odini left with a few yards of a super secret fabric that will be revealed at Style Spirit 2014, and we headed over to Pennywise in Grand Bazaar for some much-needed toiletries. What is it about Pennywise that makes you forget yourself and suddenly decide that you better buy that deodourant and shampoo in bulk…or else. Because God knows Pennywise won’t be there tomorrow for all your cotton pad and St. Ives Facial Scrub needs right? Sigh. Anyway, left there relatively unscathed and with the items I actually went in for. Someone needs to design some chic blinders stat so I can don those every time I have to go to Pennywise. By the way, it was brought to my attention recently that there are people on this island that have never been to Pennywise. Wut? How do you live?

We then headed off to the real highlight of the day: the Pop Hop Shop hosted at 6, Carlos by the fabulous Team M. Pieces by Meiling, Sanianitos, Rachel Ross, Shannon Alonzo, Zidelle and Anthony Reid were up for grabs at this chic little shindig, which also featured glorious desserts from Oh Sugar Cookies, Dulce DessertsSweettooth Cakery and Stella Magnolia. Meiling, was, as usual, the most gracious host, serving up lovely orange sangria and some rather conspicuous marshmallow eggs.

 

I personally left with one super gorgeous striped skirt by Shannon Alonzo. Easily one of my favourite things I’ve ever bought. It’s so feminine and lovely…really made me feel like what I imagine Audrey Hepburn felt like in most of her outfits – and to feel like Audrey Hepburn is, of course, one of my many life aspirations. I wore it for my Sunday evening shenanigans, so you’ll get to see the whole look when I post on that 😉

Right after I dropped those girls home, I changed quickly and headed to Fanatic Kitchen Studio for the launch of Off Menu – a brand new dining concept brought to you by the brains behind Meet Me At Fanatic, which you all may know is a fixture on my schedule.

The concept goes like so – Chefs Peru and Juman are given a ‘secret’ ingredient to manipulate into a four course menu and a cocktail. The ‘secret’ (and I keep putting secret in quotations because it really wasn’t a secret, lol) ingredient for the launch was apples. Yay! I love apples. We started out with an amuse bouche of granny smith gelatin spheres topped with Himalayan sea salt and apple brunoise relish. Tangy and delicious. I have a real weakness for salt, rather than sweet so this was a nice opener for me. Next up was a course I was particularly looking forward to: cream of coconut pumpkin soup with spiced apple fritters, thyme-cider foam and roasted pumpkin seeds. The apple fritters weren’t as sweet as I expected, which I was totally fine with. Everything about this dish was perfection, and it was served with some rustic garlic bread, which proved particularly useful for mopping every last bit of soup up at the end. The next course took a while to reach my plate (because I swapped out pork for the all-of-a-sudden-in-demand salmon) but once it arrived it was totally worth the wait. Tri-spiced pork tenderloin (salmon steak for me) drizzled with rosemary and red wine jus, served atop saffron infused risotto, grilled asparagus, fire-seared cherry tomatoes with a bell pepper relish and confit apples. Despite this dish being one of the most delicious things I think I’ve ever tasted in Fanatic KItchen Studio, it was also the one I felt was least influenced by the star of the night – the apple. I harbour no complaints though…it was definitely amazing and very filling. Somehow I managed to make a bit of room for dessert though (obviously), which was double chocolate brownies topped with apple-cinnamon ice cream, drizzed with fresh strawberry compote, tri-colourd apple salsa and sweet chips topped with pulled caramel sugar. I soldiered my way though this one…but it really was a struggle because everything was so sweet (thanks to Chef Juman for hitting me with ‘It’s a dessert’ when I brought this to his attention though -_-) and as I said before I’m much more of a salt girl. I’m also not a huge fan of ice cream, but Chef Juman had graciously obliged me with half a scoop rather than the full thing, so I made it through that part ok. I also have to mention the drinks we had that night – apple infused sangria, and a lovely dry prosseco with slivers of desiccated apple. Crisp and fresh on both counts and a really lovely accompaniment to the meal. I’m surprised I didn’t have to be rolled out of Fanatic, actually…

Enough talk though! On to what you really came here for: the pictures!

 

 

 

 

Out & About // Brunch At Fanatic with Chef Amit Raval

On Sunday I had the immense pleasure of sitting down for brunch with some lovely company in a lovely place. My favourite haunt, Fanatic Kitchen Studio, in collaboration with the fabulous TriniChow has been hosting a series of Sunday morning (into afternoon) brunches featuring some of the most sought after chefs in the country.

This was the fourth installment, and guests were treated to an Indian-inspired brunch experience by Chef Amit Raval of Amtar’s Catering. The usually bright and modern Studio was transformed into an Indian-themed dining room with lots of red and gold accents and beautiful ornate table cloths and sculptures. We were welcomed with a complimentary rum cocktail, a really delicious mango and mint concoction called Monsoon something (the name escapes me). Throughout the Brunch our wine glasses were kept topped up every course with wines sponsored by Brydens.

I love traditional Indian food, and I don’t get nearly enough of it on a regular basis, so this was a real treat for me. My favourite dish was between the Prawn Vindaloo & Coconut Basmati Rice (because spice, yum!) and the Dhal Makhani & Naan (because who doesn’t love nann?! and dhal makhani has been my favourite Indian dish since I was introduced to it years ago at Apsara). Let’s not even get into the added pleasure of being seated between actress/teacher Debra Boucaud Mason and UpMarket founder Janet Bloom Fabres, and across from the ever-effervescent Corey from Learning Patience and her hubby. I had a fabulous time and will definitely be looking forward to the next Brunch At Fanatic, scheduled for the end of January, which I’m hearing may be a particularly special occasion.  Check out my pics below, get jealous, get hungry, and follow Fanatic Kitchen Studio and Trinichow on Facebook so you can be the first to know when booking for the next Brunch at Fanatic is happening.

 

 

Out & About // Aioli

Sooooo…I’ve been eating again. As if Saturday night’s shenanigans weren’t enough, the Boy and I, along with food blogger extraordinaire Quincy and his guest Kim, took to the newest culinary kid on the block (one of the best kept secrets that everyone has kind of heard about but wasn’t sure if the rumours were true) Aioli. Well…it exists. And it’s open for business, even though there hasn’t been any star-studded launch or huge pomp and circumstance surrounding its debut. I like that, by the way. I was able to enter the apparently elusive restaurant without any expectations, just an unbiased palette and an empty belly.

Let me start at the beginning – the first impression is certainly the decor. Aioli is beautiful. The restaurant isn’t very large and to be honest, the space doesn’t strike me as ideal for this kind of establishment, but boy did the interior decorator do a fantastic job. Ambient lighting, lots of dark wood and mirrored accents complemented by the hues of green running throughout. A huge leg of ham sat rigged up and exposed on the counter top just behind our table, and only afterward did we realise (or rather, did we have it explained to us by Head Chef Johnny Aboud) that this was Spain’s answer to Italian prosciutto – Jambon Iberico, the leg of a Black Iberian pig that is fed only on acorns and forced to stand on its hindlegs for most of its life (this sort of reminds me why I stopped eating pork, but really…I don’t think any of the pork mouths at the table minded much) creating developed and muscular hindquarters that apparently make for excellent ham. That’s what the Boy and Quincy had for their appetizers, while I opted for a Shrimp Cocktail and Kim dined on an impressively presented platter of Bone Marrow. My shrimp dish was excellent. The mango salsa differentiated it from the regular old shrimp cocktails you’re used to getting at less upscale establishments. The cocktail sauce held some heat so the mango was also a nice contrast.

For our entrees, I chose the duck, the Boy chose lamb, Q chose salmon, Kim chose pork and our host Leslie Ann opted for the filet mignon. The lovely Michele Jodhan-Ayoung Chee was also on hand to assist us with selecting wine pairings for the mains we selected. I didn’t taste any other dish but I can say that my duck was PHENOMENAL. Tender and moist with a seared, crispy skin. The bok choy and edamame were just a litte bit spicy, enough to complement the sweetness of the soy glaze on the duck breast. Everything was beautifully presented, portion sizes were just enough.

Dessert was obviously a must at this point. I opted for the Basil Panna Cotta since I’m not a fan of super sweet confections. It was delicious, and really interesting given the combination of flavours…but the real star was the Napoleon. I snuck a bite of the Boy’s and was blown away by how fantastic it was. I didn’t have any of the other desserts but the ice cream received praise from Q, who isn’t even a dessert man himself.

This great review probably has everyone anxious to know the most important thing – what’s the cost of all this perfection? The prices are actually surprisingly affordable. Prices range from $45 to around $250 for appetizers and entrees. It won’t break the bank and it’s more than worth the price. Please check out the Aioli Facebook Page for more information. I’ll be heading back soon myself.

Check out some pics below (Sorry for the shoddy pics. I neglected to carry my DSLR because I wasn’t sure it would be appropriate. Bad call on my part)