No joke, Lit­tle Saigon does sim­ple things right

The Hamilton Spectator - - FOOD - ALANA HUD­SON

I’m not daz­zled by celebrity cul­ture, but when Jerry Se­in­feld re­cently veered away from the spate of new restau­rants pop­ping up in Hamil­ton and chose Lit­tle Saigon, cu­rios­ity led me up the Moun­tain to check it out.

My din­ing com­pan­ion and I parked in the Mall Road strip mall con­tain­ing the LCBO, right across from Forti­nos. A shrine in the restau­rant’s foyer, about knee­high, greeted us. It held man­gos, eggs and un­lit in­cense, among other items.

In the din­ing room, I was par­tially trans­ported to Asia by the dec­o­ra­tive touches, such as the mu­ral of a large white build­ing sur­rounded by a man­i­cured land­scape, dot­ted with trees and flow­ers.

Ad­ja­cent to our booth, an im­age of match­ing size: peo­ple rid­ing on scoot­ers in Viet­nam. Tucked into a cor­ner of each im­age is a photo, which sug­gests that some­one there has a direct con­nec­tion to Viet­nam. De­spite this, the menu en­com­passes el­e­ments from South­east Asia and be­yond, in­clud­ing Thai­land and Ja­pan.

To start, my com­pan­ion and I or­dered Viet­namese cof­fee, mine with con­densed milk, hers with su­gar and ice. I rem­i­nisced about when I dis­cov­ered the drink, back when I was just be­gin­ning my cook­ing ca­reer in New York. The con­densed milk had been a rev­e­la­tion.

Tak­ing a sip of the cof­fee, though, jolted me back to the present. It was very strong and very sweet. My com­pan­ion thought it tasted like a candy tof­fee, and I thought it tasted more like cof­fee ice cream, with an ex­tra cou­ple of spoon­fuls of su­gar. Ei­ther way, you get the idea.

We or­dered the house tea to try as well, and it was per­fect. Not a hint of bit­ter­ness, full of leafy flavour with­out be­ing over­bear­ing. The busy room re­tained a calm vibe. Back to the food. First out: Chå Giò, Viet­namese spring rolls with pork, car­rot, taro and glass noo­dle. Light, thin and crispy, per­fect to bite into. The taro did dou­ble duty, act­ing as a binder for the pork and car­rot, while also adding its mild sweet potato flavour to the mix. The dip­ping sauce on the side was sim­ple and per­fect, es­sen­tially sweet­ened fish sauce, and an ex­cel­lent com­ple­ment to the fried snack, along with bot­tled hoisin and sriracha.

The mains soon fol­lowed. Three to share: rare beef satè pho, crispy roast duck, and grilled chicken ver­mi­celli. The pho had a fairly flavour­ful broth, even be­fore I added a healthy hand­ful of basil and sprouts, and full

squeeze of lime. The lit­tle chili pep­per graphic next to the item on the menu sug­gested it would be spicy, but for me, it didn’t even hit medium-hot. Ask for ex­tra-spicy if you like it full-hot.

This was some of the nicest ver­mi­celli I’ve had, thanks to the sauce. Served in a bowl on the side, it con­sisted of fish sauce, a touch of su­gar and some vine­gar. Sim­ple and per­fect.

My com­pan­ion doused the ver­mi­celli with the sauce and mixed it to­gether, along with some sriracha. (She owns an “I love sriracha” apron, so this was right up her al­ley.)

Also in the bowl: a spring roll and “minced shrimp” on a su­gar cane. This was like a dense shrimp mousse, shaped like a shrimp. It was tasty doused with the sauce, but bit­ing on the cane and suck­ing out some of the su­gar gave it a fresh, sweet fin­ish. De­li­cious.

At this point, I looked up at the teardrop lamps that hung from above, be­cause they were blink­ing, just enough so that it be­came a bit dis­tract­ing.

Af­ter a short while they stead­ied, how­ever, and soon af­ter, three large metal squares that lay in­side one an­other lit up, out­lined in neon green, blue and red. It’s a quirky mod­ern touch in the midst of a laid-back tra­di­tional din­ing room, but kind of charm­ing too — and mem­o­rable.

The crispy duck was one of the more ex­pen­sive en­trées and I felt it could have been cooked a lit­tle less. The ac­com­pa­ny­ing plum sauce, how­ever, was a plucky con­trast to the stir-fried bean sprouts, car­rots and scal­lions in the dish.

Our server was at­ten­tive through­out the meal yet he let us eat at our own pace. When we asked about desserts, he of­fered two choices: green tea ice cream and cheese ice cream.

“Cheese ice cream?” We re­peated, just to be sure we heard cor­rectly.

He laughed and ad­mit­ted that it was a lit­tle weird but tasty, once you got used to it. How could we re­sist? It ar­rived in a glass-stemmed bowl, with lit­tle chunks of ched­dar mixed in. It was like eat­ing cheese­cake ice cream but with a salty tang from the ched­dar.

Af­ter the first few bites, I de­cided it was pretty good.

When I went to pay, our friendly server did the hon­ours. The tab for both of us was per­fectly rea­son­able: $61.45; there’s also a bar­gain-priced lunch menu.

Leav­ing, I felt glad that Se­in­feld had opened my eyes. I’d take Lit­tle Saigon over the sit­com’s old-school diner any time.

Alana Hud­son has cooked at restau­rants in­clud­ing Le Bernardin, Vong, and Avalon.

CATHIE COWARD, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

The disco light­ing in the ceil­ing was a colour­ful and quirky sur­prise.

CATHIE COWARD, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

Ad­ja­cent to our booth, an im­age of peo­ple rid­ing on scoot­ers in Viet­nam. Tucked into a cor­ner is a photo, which sug­gests that some­one there has a direct con­nec­tion to Viet­nam.

CATHIE COWARD, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

Lit­tle Saigon on Mall Road has a ca­sual and relaxed at­mos­phere.

ALANA HUD­SON, SPE­CIAL TO THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

Fried spring rolls, with an earthy taro bind­ing.

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