Three-month-old Mountain Retreat is the newest addition to the stable of mom-friendly restaurants such as Secret Garden, Quan Bui and Cuc Gach Quan, which offer simple yet tasty Vietnamese fare in a homey, unpretentious setting. Mountain Retreat’s spin is on northern Vietnamese food, claiming the Ha Giang style’ — at least according to a sign on the way in. It’s the kind of place you’d bring your hygiene-obsessed parents to if they came to Saigon and were too afraid to eat street food, but still wanted to sample Vietnamese cuisine.
Located in District 1’s centre, it does a roaring lunchtime trade. Not unlike Secret Garden, Mountain Retreat is somewhat hidden, tucked into an alley off Le Loi. It too is located on the top floor of an unassuming apartment block, just above The Morning Café. It’s so well hidden, in fact, that I needed to ask directions from the parking attendant.
The décor of Mountain Retreat seems to be a homage to the rustic mountain dwellings of Ha Giang (or so I’m told), the mountainous area near the Chinese border. The interior is all bamboo-roofing, faux-mud walls, chicken-wire lampshades and colourful ‘ethnic’ tablecloths. The open terrace doors blow a nice cooling breeze throughout the restaurant, which is important, because as I discovered, things were about to get spicy.
We ordered a selection of traditional Vietnamese eats, only glancing at a decent wine list which won’t break the bank (a bottle of Chardonnay costs VND350,000).
First up was my personal favourite, banh xeo (VND75,000), which translates as sizzling cake. Mountain Retreat’s offering was surprisingly buttery and creamy, but still consistent enough for us to wrap it in salad leaves and dip it in a pleasantly tangy chilli sauce. This was followed by ba roi chien gion (VND65,000): melt-in-the-mouth, deep-fried bacon strips which had just the right amount of crunch, as well as a comfortingly fatty aftertaste — like all good bacon should! The plate was garnished with slightly pickled cabbage, which also went down a treat.
Next up were hen xuc banh da (VND75,000): reassuringly spicy baby clams mixed with chilli and herbs, which we scooped up with rice crackers. The burst of spiciness is due to a mix of fermented shrimp sauce, ground black pepper, coriander, shallots and red peppers. The ever-eloquent Ed Weinberg described this simple but flavourful dish as being “freakin’ scrumptious”. A bowl of crunchy garlic rice (VND75,000) provided accompaniment.
Finally we tucked into some trung cut bac hoa (VND75,000), which was the only slightly disappointing dish: fried quail eggs wrapped in fish cake paste and rice flakes, which were a little dry, leading to a slightly underwhelming end to an otherwise very decent meal. Lunch for three people came to VND477,000, including copious amounts of ‘fancy’ tra da: the kind that’s served with an actual tea leaf inside the glass.
In all, Mountain Retreat might not be the go-to standard for classy, traditional Vietnamese food, but it is a solid option for a pleasant meal in District 1, especially if your mom is in town. — Kieran Crowe
Mountain Retreat is on the top floor of 36 Le Loi, Q1, HCMC. Enter through the alley