Sharing plates and family-style dining in a rustic garden setting
In this age of complete disclosure, where just about everything imaginable is revealed through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogs, and good old reliable print, it’s nothing short of a miracle that a restaurant as charming as Secret Garden (Rooftop, 158 Pasteur, D1; serves lunch and dinner) and open for a year still remains unknown.
Here on the rooftop of a five-story tenement down an alley, away from the noise of the city and with views of high-rises from a distance, is a quaint countryside inspired garden eatery that takes a different approach to Vietnamese homecooking by blending fresh herbs, tangy sauces and other local ingredients with traditional techniques. The garden in the middle of the open air dining space lends support to the restaurant’s name and its theme, while scattered bric-a-brac, wooden shutters, rustic furniture and colourful draperies add a touch of shabby chic to the ambiance. This all comes together in a quiet, simply attractive restaurant with few airs or pretensions.
Secret Garden expands the conventional dinner service of appetizer and main course. “We wanted to create a family-style food- sharing experience that’s common in the countryside,. You can’t fine an ambiance like this in any other restaurant in the city,” says manager Huy. “Half of our clientele are Vietnamese who aren’t native to Saigon so we wanted them to feel at home when they dine here, like eating together with their family.” Their menu is conveniently grouped into various staples – salad, protein, rice, vegetables and soup – found at every family meal.
After assigning Huy as head of our family for dinner, leaving the ordering to him, we cooled down with a refreshing glass of Lemongrass lemonade (VND25,000). The hint of lemongrass added depth to this simple drink, giving it an herbal, tart finish. Our food soon arrived – six plates in total. A well- known adage among chefs is “you eat with your eyes first,” and was evident here when all the dishes were laid out in front of us – luscious greens from the fresh herbs, dark browns from the sauces, vibrant oranges and whites from the pickled vegetables – it was a rainbow made of food.
We dove first towards the Grilled lemongrass pork rolls (VND85,000), which were gorgeous to look at – the pork rolls were tucked into semi-shredded lemongrass stalks then grilled, keeping the meat juicy and tender while also giving it a smoky citrus flavor. The dish was accompanied by a pureed sauce made from coriander, chilli and salt that complemented it perfectly.
The Stir-fried morning glory with garlic (VND65,000) and Fried spring rolls (VND85,000) were crunchy and crispy, respectively. Most restaurants tend to keep the leaves when stir frying morning glory, giving the dish a chewy, soft texture, however the chef at Secret Garden uses only the stalks, which allows it to remain crunchy.
At the centre of the table were tapas- like portions of Fried prawn and sesame (VND85,000) and Deep fried sticky rice (VND65,000). Four large shrimps coated in sesame seeds and a thin layer of minced pork fanned out over a plate, the surf and turf fried mix could’ve been overpowering but was saved by the sesame seeds and the chilli sauce dip that helped balance the meatiness of the dish. The latter dish is a reinterpretation of a common local street snack. Here, the sticky rice was formed into a crispy wafer topped with pork floss, shrimp bits, tree ear mushrooms, minced pork and garnished with mo hanh (scallion oil) and a dab of chilli sauce.
Perhaps the most brilliant dish, a Tet favourite, was the Soaked beef with fish sauce (VND125,000) served with pickled scallion bulbs.
Similar to curing, the dish takes several days to prepare, starting with boiling the beef shank until completely cooked, then cutting it into thin slices and then fermenting the meat in a sealed jar at room temperature filled with sugar and fish sauce (the saltiness from the fish sauce acts as the curing agent) for four to five days, depending on the thickness of the cuts. The result was divine – the beef had a nutty, earthy flavour leaving just a hint of fish sauce on the tongue. And like pickled ginger when eating sushi, the pickled scallion bulbs are meant to cleanse the palate for the next bite. Earlier in the evening, we opted to cancel our order of fried rice, not wanting to fill up on carbs and to ensure we had room to empty all the plates on our dinner table, which we did with gluttonous abandonment.
While some secrets are meant to be kept – your unspoken crush at the office, your secret stash of cash at home or those confidential state files – Secret Garden is not one of them.