Take your taste buds on a Mediterranean fling
With food, it’s always the familiar that wins over the exotic, and in the food industry, it’s dependability that keeps a restaurateur in business. While trendy Thai Van Lung has transformed unrecognizably since Tristan Ngo founded his fancy Mediterranean eatery Skewers (9 Thai Van Lung, D1) here 13 years ago, the restaurant itself has remained pleasingly consistent. After all these years, the kitchen staff still haven’t moved on (a record number of them have now married each other) and the menu has only expanded without dropping off any old favorites.
“Have a dish today, come back a month later and it’s the same,” says Tristan, who emphatically runs Skewers as a ‘family thing.’ “With a lot of us older restaurants, the staff have stayed with us right through. That’s part of the secret of being able to stick around.”
Don’t be fooled by the classy décor – this is a venue to be concertedly comfortable in. You can wear a suit and tie if you want, but turn up in shorts and a polo shirt and you’ll be seated, and no one will care. “It’s not like a fine dining place, although it may feel like it,” says Tristan. “We just make it so it’s warm, it’s comfortable. The kids are very welcome in our place too, because we aim at families.”
Skewers’ cuisine is as close to the genuine article as you can get. “I try to keep the traditions,” Tristan explains. “French people come to the restaurant and call me the Greek guy. I don’t believe in fusion cuisine. That’s too confusing. Fusion is like you don’t know what you want to do.”
Tristan trained in Mediterranean-style cooking back in the States, and traveled in the region after graduation. “To me, Mediterranean is a simple food. It’s all about freshness; it’s not complicated, not like French or Italian or Spanish. Mediterranean food is essentially based on fresh products, and Vietnam has a lot of them. Fresh vegetables. We’ve got eggplant, cucumbers, and fresh tomatoes. There’s plenty of seafood here. With those basic ingredients, you can start to put together the cuisine. We serve a lot of Greek food, but the menu is all over the Mediterranean, Lebanese, North Africa, the islands, you name it.”
We start our meal with a mixed dips platter (VND250,000), a generous heap of pita bread with a selection of pureed spreads. The hummus is very smooth and very good, but I find myself partial to the southern French-style tapenade with its salty, coarsetextured crushed capers and olives. The roasted eggplants in the baba ghanoush lend a pleasant smokiness to that particular dip. We’re also treated to the chef’s favorite goat cheese tart (VND150,000), a homemade recipe with a balsamic olive oil base. More or less a savory Hellenic cheesecake, the goat’s cheese is blended with feta and cream cheese to balance the flavors and add cohesion to each slice.
We take our mains from the grill – the tender meat cooked on the massive skewers that lend the restaurant its name (and on that note, don’t make the mistake of many first-timers: Skewers does not specialize in shish kebabs). I go for the saffron-marinated chicken skewers with tzatziki sauce (VND300,000), which is a massive helping equivalent to three chicken breasts. The meat is exceedingly consistent and pleasingly soft; the grassy tang of the saffron is apparent as each bite touches the palate, but does not persist long enough to overpower the natural flavor of the poultry. Use the tzatziki dip to vary the spiciness to your taste. Our second main, the grilled salmon fillet with nicoise salad, curry mayonnaise sauce and micro mix (VND380,000) is perfectly cooked – seared crunchy on the skin and full, unadulterated freshness within, warm and separating easily on the tongue. The beans and asparagus in the salad lend a firm quality to each mouthful, and this is an easy dish to finish despite the generosity of the serving.
Take Skewers meals with wine – the cuisine more or less demands it. “Wine goes with pretty much everything we have on the menu,” says Tristan. “We have a serious wine list here, because I like wine. Restaurant-wise, I’d say we’re in the top five in terms of range, and we’ve been officially recognized for it. I put a lot of consideration into what we included, and we’ve managed to participate in a lot wine events because of that.”
After so many years, Tristan’s still satisfied with the business. “I’m happy with it,” he assures us. “This is something I like to do. Just seeing people. Food, it’s all about bringing people together. You serve food how you want to be served yourself. That’s what it’s all about.”
Images by Ngoc Tran