Updated Thai cuisine at The Racha Room.
An Englishman, an Irishman and an Australian walk into a bar…
In what could have easily turned into a tired fusion/confusion cliché, The Racha Room (12-14 Mac Thi Buoi, D1), one of Saigon’s newest restaurants cum lounges, manages to shine in its debut serving updated Thai cuisine. The first restaurant by chef/co-owner Chris Donnellan (who’s actually English-Irish by way of Australia), isn’t so much fusion as Thai-inspired. Instead of blending various cuisines together, the menu offers up surprising twists on one of the world’s most popular cuisines.
Truth be told, the unexpected is a bit of a theme for this tiny space. Heavy wooden doors on the street level hint at classical Thai food, but a walk up the stairs leads into a high-ceilinged, exposed brick, open space dominated by large backlit and very well-stocked bar (courtesy of one of the other owners who also owns a liquor company). There’s limited seating on the main floor and in the small loft above for diners, as well as around the bar for those wanting to enjoy a early evening cocktail to lounge music in the background.
While the signature cocktails like the sassy Racha, an entrancingly red concoction involving Bénédictine, crème de mure, aperol, triple sec and vodka balanced with the sweetness of raspberry tempered with orange bitters (VND140,000) and the rest of the cocktails with names like Hot & Stormy and the Concubine (vodka, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, lychees, lime juice and fresh cucumber) lean towards the frilly, the one-page food menu is starkly simple in comparison.
The entire left column is devoted to dishes inspired by Thailand’s street foods which makes sense considering how incredibly popular they have become. Here again, surprises abound. The coconut marinated salmon with peanut and tamarind dressing (VND125,000) is an example of how Donnellan has married Thai flavors with unexpected ingredients. The salmon is marinated in a mild bath of coconut cream with hints of Thai lime leaf, lemongrass and fish sauce. The acidity of the tamarind cuts through the fattiness of the raw fish, but wisely, the sauce on the plate is off to the side so it doesn’t overpower the delicate flavor of the salmon. The salt and pepper school prawns (VND95,000) are crispy bursts of flavor accompanied by the pleasing heat of the red nam jim, a chili sauce that gets its intensity from coriander root, palm sugar and bird’s eye and banana chilies.
With the pork nam prik ong (VND85,000), Donnellan stays with the traditional, allowing the sweet/salty/sour/bitter/spicy tones of Thai cuisine to shine. The simple dip of palm sugar, shrimp paste, coriander root, chilies and galangal is meant to be scooped up in baby lettuce cups. Refreshingly, most of the appetizers are around or under the VND100,000 mark, bucking the lamentable trend of appetizers costing almost as much as mains.
While main courses only occupy half a column on the menu, the options aim to please both traditionalists and the more adventurous. The fried baby snapper (VND270,000) was meaty and nicely paired with a coriander and mint relish atop a slaw of green papaya, mango dices, pomelo and slivers of young coconut, but the star of the evening for me was the red duck leg curry (VND310,000) with shallots and Thai basil. Here Donnellan slow cooks the duck before giving it a quick deep-fry, creating an unexpected combination of crispiness enveloping a falling-off-the-bone tenderness. The duck is placed on top of the curry, more of a thick, earthy sauce than a stew, flavored with star anise, cinnamon, orange peel and Shaoxing wine.
The last half column is reserved for desserts and surprisingly (or maybe not, considering how much Racha Room is aiming to be anything but conventional), mango with sticky rice isn’t on the menu. Instead, diners will find playful combinations like Thai red tea panna cotta with poached pear and coconut sorbet or caramelized mango with chili rock sugar and young rice ice cream. For those who hate to choose, all five desserts are available on a share plate (VND290,000) including an exquisite steamed ginger pudding with poached apples.
With the opening of Racha Room, young Chef Donnellan draws on years of kitchen experience that belie his age, including stints at notable Melbourne establishments like the Asian-influenced Ezard and as Head Chef of Gingerboy, an upscale Australian take on Southeast Asian hawker food. The simple, clean presentation of his dishes and the focus on the freshest of products are possibly the influence of two years spent at Nobu London. If the buzz surrounding the barely two-month old restaurant and the hip, smartly-dressed crowd occupying every seat in the house at 8pm on a Tuesday evening are any indication, Donnellan is out to show that The Racha Room is no joke.
Images by Ngoc Tran