Discovering the exotic flavours of the Fertile Crescent
Amun garden restaurant & lounge (23A Ngo Thoi Nhiem, D3) is located on the Ngo Thoi Nhiem strip of District 3, where the hip locals and the better-informed foreigners dine and spend their lazier low key nights. Amun Garden is inspired by the cultures and cuisine from Morocco and North Africa. The airy interior and colorway is designed to mimic the famed Majorelle Garden located in Marrakech. To say it’s inspired or mimics is to use the terms loosely. It’s more of a dance, toeing the mark around the illusive label of authenticity.
We walk in for lunch during a slow Saturday afternoon. The outdoor area is bright and inviting. There are low cushioned sofas surrounding knee high tables. Two fountains in the North African Mediterranean style are along the wall. The indoor area is dark and more intimate, made to escape the punishing Saigon heat and humidity.
During that day the heat wasn’t as brutal and the outdoor mister gave a subtle cooling affect, making for a very comfortable dining experience al fresco. We begin with an order of two of their signature cocktails, the Spicy Mojito and the Arab Kiss (VND135,000 each). The Spicy Mojito is like that of a Cuban Mojito, but I was expecting distinct Moorish flavor notes. I was surprised to find that the lingering spice flavor is undeniably Southeast Asian. The owner Anh Nguyen explains that its homemade chili syrup comes from Da Lat chili, a less bitter and less spicer pepper compared to the ever present Bird’s Eye peppers in Vietnam. It, nonetheless, gives a sharp kick to the drink that is more known to be sugary sweet. The Arab Kiss is made up of more familiar cocktail ingredients of vodka, cointreau, lemon and watermelon juice; making it a perfect companion to have on any summer evening.
The menu has a majority of North African and Middle Eastern dishes, but also a smattering of Western dishes to appease the non-”adventurous” diner who comes to this destination more for the smoking of hookah and the ambiance.
The service, however, was unmistakably Saigonese—the pace of the service was languid and seemed unrehearsed by daily repetition, nor showed signs of previous protocol. It added to the overall sleepy vibe, tempting us to recline and bask in the Saturday breeze as if we were waiting for a harem of belly dancers to come and entertain the guests. (We were told that belly dancers indeed performed the evening before on Friday. Just our luck!) With this malasse overtaking us (or the two cocktails I drank) we give in to the temptation of a hookah. It comes in what appears to be a makeshift watermelon and pineapple casing. The mu’assel flavor is Forest Perfume and smells and tastes exactly as the name describes.
We ordered the dip platter (VND410,000), which consisted of five spreads: hummus, garlic hummus, spicy ganoush, muhammara, and cacik. For the main course we asked for the grilled meat platter (VND495,000) and the chicken tagine (VND140,000). The portion sizes for the dip platter and grill meat were enormous and could have easily been considered “party sizes.” The chicken tagine came presented in the traditional tagine pottery, cooked slow and purposefully.
The pita bread to accompany the meal is made with Vietnamese flour. I’m unsure of the properties of Vietnamese flour compared to that used in traditional pita bread, but the ones produced from Amun Garden are fluffy pillowy discs with a considerably more noticable yeast quality to the inner dough. The flavor is slightly sweeter and less sour compared to a traditional pita bread as well. Similar to the way the Vietnamese baguette has unique qualities that the French baguette do not possess, the same can be said with the pita bread here.
The dessert dishes arrive no less than five minutes after our mains— much to my delight! The Moroccan Orange Dessert (VND75,000) is perfect in its simplicity—peeled orange slices with caramelized sugar and sprinkled with cinnamon. The second dessert of grilled rock melons with coconut ice cream (VND115,000) once again delighted with its lack of regard to being tied to a regional theme.
Like a dance, it’s about bringing your own sense of style and drawing from different inspirations. Amun Garden shows that there’s more than one way to interpret a belly dance. Just make sure you arrive on the right night, so that you don’t miss the performance.
Images by Vy Lam