Friends near and far know Vietnam and its cuisine hold a special place in my heart. Perhaps it is the abundance and variety of fresh seafood and herbs used. Or, could it be the millennia of foreign influence that makes the cuisine so universally appealing?
Maybe it’s on account of the creative ways the Vietnamese have perfected the balance of flavours that make their cuisine incredibly appetizing. Whatever the case, the food transcends the senses and can deliver a clear and bright punch to wake up the palate.
A good expat friend from Vietnam suggested Yeu’s Saigon Café, situated on the ground floor of an otherwise dreary business park nestled between gargantuan embassies and office towers along Central Jakarta’s Jalan Rasuna Said. However bland and monolithic the surroundings are, the bright interior and charming details of the café offer a refreshing respite in the form of a modern, lacquered, Vietnamese aesthetic.
With a dizzying menu of over 100 items, one could be confused about what to order if not familiar with the cuisine. Not surprisingly, the array is as diverse as the regions in Vietnam with specialties from the north, centre and south. Over a couple of visits, we sampled a variety of traditional dishes as well as ones made more fashionable and popular by foodies looking for the next ethnic culinary craze.
Although the dipping sauce (n??c m?m pha) that usually goes with a meal veers slightly to the sweet side, it’s forgivable, as it balances the added fire from chillies in some of the dishes. The restaurant prides itself on not using MSG and is halal-certified. The proprietors also try to source produce from local, organic farms. The flavours do not disappoint with this philosophy (even though pork is somewhat integral to a number of traditional Vietnamese dishes; and I do miss it, at times).
If you still don’t know what to get, try the bánh kh?t; crispy little golden pancake cups holding minced chicken and prawns wrapped in a lettuce leaf with young perilla leaves. They also contain pickled daikon radish and carrots, fresh coriander (that’s cilantro to you North Americans) and the aforementioned dipping sauce. The cups get their golden tinge from turmeric and are delightfully crisp and savoury, with a hint of fragrant coconut milk lurking mischievously in the background.
The bánh kh?t is one of the best dishes on the menu, and reflective of the delicious food sold on the streets of Vietnam.
Another favourite is the bánh cu?n, a ‘rolled cake’ made with a thin rice flour wrapper and stuffed with minced chicken and woodear mushrooms. The contents are steamed and the rice flour wrapper transforms into something soft and glutinous, barely holding fast, then topped with fried shallots and fresh coriander for emphasis. Most people in Vietnam eat this dish as a light breakfast, and usually on-the-go.
For a main course, my current favourite is the Hanoi-style fish with turmeric and dill (ch? cá lã v?ng hà n?i). There is a century-old restaurant in the capital of Hanoi that is infamous for this dish, and esteemed chefs from around the world have made personal pilgrimages there to experience it firsthand. Yeu’s version is quite good.
Most people’s instinct is to run in the opposite direction when they see fresh fish fillets, dill, turmeric, fermented fish sauce, sweet basil and minty perilla all tossed together. For some strange reason, this combination works extremely well and the flavours all enhance each other like a well-orchestrated symphony. The turmeric and perilla take back notes while the dill and sweet basil take the fore. The fresh green onions and slinky rice noodles lend bass as the fermented fish sauce features as the musky soloist. It’s an added treat to watch the staff prepare the dish on the table.
The beef stew (bò kho) is hearty and rustic, and has comfort written all over it when served with a small loaf of their French bread. However, a better choice for seafood lovers or the more adventurous eater would be the stir-fried bamboo clams with sweet basil (?c móng tay xào lá qu?). Although phallic in nature, these bivalves have the distinct flavour of a large manila clam and the texture of a thinly sliced geoduck. At once crunchy and chewy, it is especially delicious with the sweet basil and onion sauce in which it’s cooked.
Yeu’s Saigon Café has a rather uninspired wine list, but makes up for it in the beverage department with an extensive cocktail and Vietnamese-style fruit juice menu. The Vietnamese coffee is always a delight whether iced or hot, as are the teas. The fruit drinks are not overly sweetened and provide a crisp and refreshing accompaniment to the meal. Everything comes together in harmony when experienced as a whole, and portions are generous. Serious thought and energy has been put into Jakarta’s best Vietnamese restaurant to date, and it is reflected in the food and atmosphere.
The staff understands the menu well and provided excellent suggestions. Little service touches like changing plates between appetizers and mains, along with intermittent rubbish clearing, impart a feeling of kindness in a city known otherwise for lacklustre attention to detail. All in all, a winning effort from Yeu’s Saigon Café, and I hope this restaurant wins more support and helps set the tone for ethnic cuisine in Jakarta’s ever-changing dining landscape.
Yeu’s Saigon Café
Generali Tower, Gran Rubina Business Park, Ground Floor, Unit B
(next to Carl’s Jr. and across from Caribou Coffee)
Jalan H.R. Rasuna Said, Kuningan, Jakarta 12920
Telephone: 021 2911 5558
Dinner for 2
Food: Rp. 495,000
Drinks (non-alcoholic): Rp. 84,000
Service charge: Rp. 57,900
Total Cost of Dinner: Rp. 636,900