It’s as if we’ve stepped inside a Murakami novel. The hands on my watch say seven PM, yet the deserted restaurant, with its subdued lighting and pristine spread of empty tables, interrupted only by a single solo diner in the corner, suggests a far later hour. The night’s storm has swallowed the city and everyone in it. We have the world to ourselves.
Ushering us through warm pools of copper light, an immaculately dressed maitre d’ proudly presents our table in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows which look down over a rain-soaked Hai Ba Trung. Outside, a few brave souls clutch umbrellas and leap from awning to awning as the ever-expanding puddles explode beneath the tyres of the Vinasun parade.
Starting with a truly moreish bottle of house red (a Chilean Merlot for VND665,000), we browse The Dining Room’s carefully constructed menu of modern Vietnamese cuisine. Starters move from fresh Vietnamese salads to spring rolls, dumplings and more. For the most part, prices remain firmly below the VND150,000 mark.
We single out the deep-fried stuffed pumpkin flowers (VND85,000). Void of the greasiness that can spoil many such offerings, the dish is elegant in both flavour and appearance. The ground pork filling is generous and finds a pleasant lift in the fresh greenery and crunch surrounding it. Served with a ginger soy sauce, the combination of flavours and textures is simple yet divine.
First on the list of mains (and most affordable) is a rolled strip-loin of beef with enoki mushroom and oyster sauce (VND135,000). I could end my quest here. But the choices just get better, covering creative combinations such as sea bass and edamame (VND195,000), king prawns with green mango (VND485,000) and a grilled rack of lamb with lemongrass sauce (VND550,000). A side-list of luxurious soups leads into a handful of stir-fried offerings and then onto a small but eclectic vegetarian section.
Despite being his only customers tonight, our waiter is admirably patient, giving us the time and space we need to make some seriously tough decisions. Opportunity cost (otherwise known as ‘food-envy’) can be a painful lesson in the world of high-end cuisine.
When the grilled beef fillet arrives (VND365,000), I know I’ve chosen well. It looks stunning, bursting with colour and craftsmanship while staying clear of any overly-pretentious visual gimmicks. The Australian tenderloin is good enough to earn top marks on its own, but when combining it with the slightly bitter Chinese kale, and a smear of the mashed sweet potato, things really start to kick off.
There’s more. Atop each cube of potato sits a primed firework of flavour; an Asian-style salsa housed inside the fragile outer-shell of a blushed pink baby onion. Blend everything together and the hit of sweetness transforms ‘excellent’ into ‘exceptional’.
My partner’s grilled duck breast with fried ginger and mango is equally impressive. The flavours are carefully balanced; nothing is overpowering, yet it’s still deliciously rich and bold.
It’s a refreshing way to enjoy local cuisine. “Our idea is to introduce Vietnamese food in a different way,” reads the restaurant’s website. “Our chef is not creating a fusion however, nor classic.” But this really is Vietnamese food. A tiny table and a tissue dispenser are not the only signs of an authentic meal in this city.
When it comes to desserts, “we suggest you order two or three each,” says our waiter. Well, if I must. At just VND25,000 the miniature offerings are great value. I line up a selection of fruity mousses and a flan. My companion chooses a slice of the slightly pricier banana cake (VND40,000). Served with a pleasantly sharp, alcoholic fruit reduction, the banana cake steals the show. Food envy has arrived.
The Dining Room may very well get full marks on a second visit (and there will be a second visit), but I must be irritatingly picky when things approach perfection. Firstly, the cork of our wine had been pierced on opening, something we didn’t realise until the final glass was poured. Again, not major, but when VND4 million bottles are on offer, it has to be right.
The food, again, was fantastic. For the price, too, one cannot complain. The duck, however, was slightly over-cooked, its lush pink centre disappointingly faint by the time it reached us. Also, given the show-stopping dishes filling the rest of the menu, the desserts somehow lacked the same pizazz. While the banana cake was good, the mousses and flan were a little similar in flavour and I was left yearning for something a little more decadent.
It’s of little consequence really. This place is seriously deserving of your attention, and the five three-course fixed lunch menus are outrageously good value at VND190,000. Unfortunately, though, I can’t promise that you’ll have the place to yourselves.
The Dining Room is open daily from 11am to 3pm and 6pm to 11pm, and is located above Blanchy’s Tash at 93-95 Hai Ba Trung, Q1, Ho Chi Minh City. Visit diningroom.vn
Food, Decor and Service are each rated on a scale of 0 to 15.
13 — 15 extraordinary to perfection
10 — 12.5 very good to excellent
8 — 9.5 good to very good
5 — 7.5 fair to good
0 — 4.5 poor to fair
The Word reviews anonymously and pays for all meals