Southeast Asia on One Plate

An ambitious culinary tour through Indochina

Text by James Pham

Images by Nam Quan

A restaurant with more than 120 menu items spanning five countries would seem to be a warning bell for customers, a culinary “jack of all trades, master of none.” Having lived in three of these countries and traveled to a fourth, that was my mindset heading into Monsoon, the creation of Naya Ehrlich-Adam, a Thai national married to an Austrian tourism executive. Born in Bangkok and having been in the tourism industry herself, Naya has lived in all five countries featured on the menu: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and now Vietnam, where she’s been for five years.


The restaurant seems to be an extension of the warm, trendy, globe-trotting woman herself. The stark smooth concrete floors, the bookcase filled with well-read books and the carved bed on the ground floor of the airy two story space shouts ‘contemporary traveler’. The kids corner tucked away upstairs with its toys, books and bean bag chairs say mother of two. The patio furniture set out on the shocking grass lawn in front of the restaurant (there are actual lawns in D1?) and bright red woven tea cozies say this is a place where people are expected to come and hang out for awhile.


The one-year-old Monsoon Restaurant and Bar (1 Cao Ba Nha, D1) is actually the second restaurant Naya has opened. The first, an award-winning eatery with the same name, opened in Yangon, Myanmar in 2004, and remains a local favorite. The concept for the restaurants is to showcase the cuisine that has played such an important role in Naya’s love affair with Indochina and whose foods share so many of the same ingredients.

Naya is a self-taught cook, having never gone to culinary school. The kitchen staff received training from a Thai chef who makes periodic visits, but the day-to-day operations are overseen by Naya and her Thai-restaurant trained Vietnamese sous chef who speaks to Naya in Thai. The homecooking background is reflected in the dishes which are simple, less refined but beautifully presented.

The Food

We start with the Monsoon Appetizer Platter (VND250,000) which is a generous helping of bites from all five countries. The crunchy sweet corn fritters whisk me back to the wonderful street food carts of Bangkok whereas the lephet thoke, a Myanmar salad made from fermented tea leaves which Naya hand carries back herself, is a combination of oddly pleasing umami flavors. A squeeze of lime for acid and the sweetness of the peanuts balance out the faint bitterness of the tea leaves. The Cambodian fried shrimp cakes are lovely for their meatiness however for all but the most recent arrivals to Vietnam, the fresh spring rolls with their too salty dipping sauce and the fried spring rolls while good, are not as impressive. Still, the platter is beautifully arranged and would be best shared with visitors.


For our mains, we order the Cambodian Amok Trei (VND100,000) and the Thai Beef Green Curry (VND120,000). While I wish the Thai curry had been slightly more adventurous and the baby eggplants slightly more cooked, the Amok Trei, a sweetish coconut based curry with generous chunks of firm sea bass, was truly delicious. Served up in a coconut shell, it was as pleasing to the eye as it was to the palette. There was just the right amount of spice to feel it in the back of your throat, the heat bringing out all the intense flavors. Our meal for the evening was paired with a Deakin Sauvignon Blanc, an Australian wine whose acidity worked to soften the powerful flavors in these Asian dishes.

Again, dessert was a love / love-not-as-much affair. The mango with sticky rice and coconut (VND90,000) was good, but not as good as you’d find in Bangkok’s eateries. However the banana fritters drizzled in honey and sesame seeds with a scoop of Fanny’s vanilla ice cream (VND50,000) was a welcome contrast of hot and cold, crunchy and creamy.

It’s clear that Monsoon ably reflects the passion of a woman in love with Indochina.



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