Delicious innovations on Vietnamese classics
In between duck tacos, wasabi crab and the latest culinary fad it can be far too easy to overlook those classic dishes which sprang organically from Vietnam. Also were it not for a helpful xe om driver who recognized the signs of a foreigner completely lost, I would have walked right past Time Bistro (44 Nguyen Hue, D1) several more times before finding it. The understated and moonlit façade may have been easy to miss the first time but having tried their take on authentic Saigonese food it will be difficult to walk pass again.
Authentic Saigonese cooking in Saigon? Granted the premise may not be original but like all good remakes Time Bistro pays homage and takes liberties. While distracted by the intriguing fibrous lampshades that hang from the ceiling, I was seated with the proprietor, Phuong, who was telling me of recent renovations that coincided with construction work for the Nguyen Hue Pedestrian Walkway. As expected, business had been down during the work on the street, and therefore the time was right to make the change when cost would be minimal. The restaurant is unrecognizable from the photos online of its previous incarnation. The carved and turned timber tables and chairs, styled in the classic Indochinese ebony, account for the majority of the furniture. On the walls are murals of classic Saigon icons (The Notre Dame Cathedral, The Continental Hotel, etc) and a treat for cartography fans are 1960s maps of Saigon that belonged to First Lieutenant Ray W. Wilson, presumably an officer of a Topographical Battalion of the United States Engineering Corp. The ambient Vietnamese music played softly on the sound system is much like the waitstaff: instinctual and unobtrusive. Their smart uniforms are color coded to the murals and they are never without a smile.
What is sure to become Time Bistro’s signature dish is the tempura prawn served inside a dragonfruit with dragonfruit mayonnaise (VND220,000). Just to see this dish is worth a trip here. The presentation allows all the natural beauty of the fruit to stand out and accentuates the golden tempura. The sauce is a unique experience — the creamy mayonnaise tempered well by the mild and delicate flesh of the dragonfruit. The tempura is thick and is complemented by the sauce, and is delicious. This is an impressive and uniquely original dish, although prawn purists may wish to order it without the tempura.
A step up from the usual cha gio, the traditional pork and taro shallow-fried (VND60,000) is a must-have – the chef has a light touch with the oil and this is where their skills really shine, allowing the flavors of the pork to stand out.
The spring rolls, as well as the fried squid banh cuon (VND60,000), when coated liberally in the serving sauce, make for an excellent start.
Though a full menu of cocktails is available at a reasonable VND100,000, the traditional Saigon experience would demand a fresh and flavorful array of traditional drinks starting from VND50,000 from the seasonal juice blends (khong duong naturally) and chamomile ice tea to the coconut smoothies and vu sua with fresh milk.
Though the vegetarian options are few, it’s the quality that counts and Time Bistro revives an interesting vegetable with a variety of English names with the most memorable being “The Tonkin Creeper” and “The Flower of a Thousand Skies.” The vegetable, known as the thien ly flower (VND80,000) to you and me, has the taste and consistency of something somewhere between broccoli and asparagus and is lightly stir fried in butter and garlic. Carnivores should consider this as well, as it makes a good side dish to a hotpot. I was served the salmon claypot (VND110,000) with pepper, lemongrass and fish sauce. Though using salmon may be an ambitious choice, the fresh and ample seasoning makes any albumin imperceptible. Be sure to order rice with this dish as you’ll want to savor the sauce.
An unexpected highlight was the duck wrapped in deep fried taro (VND140,000); though splendid by themselves, they were accompanied by a sori sinh to sauce – sori is Vietnamese cherry (which is remarkably similar to an Australian lili pili fruit) made into a smoothie, which is then used as a sauce.
When I finally ask Phuong what the strange and pretty weavings are that cover the numerous small incandescent bulbs lighting the restaurant, she explains that they are wrapped in dried out loofah. The soft shadowed effect of the dappled low light makes for a warm and romantic venue, with Phuong divulging that “some people come here to kiss.” I came for the food, and that was more than enough to satisfy me.
Images By Ngoc Tran