Monday, February 16, 2009

Hue (Part 1)

I was excited to travel to Hue, an ancient city most famous for its imperial tombs, royal palaces, flowing river, and food. I have fond memories of Hue thanks to trips there in 2002, 1997, and 1995. The place has certainly changed a lot since my first trip there fourteen years ago, but also since my last trip only seven years prior. This was my first time there by plane; the $47 airfare (the taxi ride into town, however, will cost you over $20) combined with the forty-five minute flight from Saigon made it too tempting a destination to pass up on this trip.

As soon I had checked into my hotel, I headed out looking for restaurants specializing in the city's famed Imperial Cuisine, which is a continuation into the modern era of dishes that for 300 years Vietnam's royal court and mandarin class insisted on. The cuisine is extremely refined, often using the rarest of ingredients to make small, highly artistic dishes. In the case of the royal family, for both lunch and dinner they were typically served 66 dishes, of which 50 were savory and 16 sweet. The dishes were meant to express one’s place in the rigid social hierarchy of the time, and their presentation was considered to be just as important as their taste. This latter aspect has been preserved to the modern day, and visitors to Hue can find several restaurants specializing in this cuisine. Today's menus are purportedly similar to what royalty and the upper classes once ate, but I have a hard time believing this if only because the types of food served back then – orangutan lips, rhinoceros skin, bear paws, the meat from peacocks, elephants, and deer – are very different from what’s served now; dishes which, I found, include pork, beef, and seafood, and common varieties of vegetables, fruits, and noodles.

The first place I visited turned me away once they realized I’d come by myself rather than with a large group. Obviously, they were only concerned about making money, and I was happy to leave and continue exploring for other restaurants. I finally came upon Phuoc Thanh Garden, which was very near my hotel – convenient for my waddle home after all the food I was about to consume.

Entrance to Phuoc Thanh Garden Restaurant

I was quite happy to find this gem of a restaurant. Its interior was spotless and beautifully appointed with classic Vietnamese dining tables and chairs. Unfortunately, my waitress couldn't have been less pleased to see me and wasn't the least bit shy about showing me. She obviously didn't want to be there, or have me be there, and the prospect of taking my order and then bringing it out to me later -- all six courses -- only seemed to make her grow surlier.

I ordered as cheerfully as I could and then jumped in my seat as she whipped the menu out of my hands and trudged off. I might have guessed she was mute, for she had nothing whatsoever to say to me, but then I heard her mumble something to another waitress who sat slumped over a chair by the kitchen door.

Nicely appointed first floor of Phuoc Thanh

After a few minutes my first dish burst through the kitchen door, held by my snarling waitress, who walked toward me with the energy and verve of someone who might have run a marathon just prior to coming to work. She dumped my plate before me, pointed at the top of my menu, then walked away. Ignoring her, I dug into course số một: noodle soup with shrimp (mi vang tom). It didn't really look like much, but I must admit that it tasted great. The noodles were cooked just beyond al dente, and the shrimp added nice texture and flavor to the salty-sour broth. I finished it quickly and immediately had it whisked away.

1st course: noodle soup with shrimp (mi vang tom)

Course number two was something I'd seen before -- banh Hue, which is basically cooked rice steamed with ground shrimp, pork, and chopped scallions in a banana leaf. One drizzles fish sauce (nuoc mam) onto the banh Hue and then scoops it off the leaf with a spoon. The taste is mild, though the shrimp and pork are both apparent, and the rice, as I chewed it, gained more of my interest with the slight flavor of banana leaf that it had absorbed. There wasn't much to eat, a fact that only made me more focused on my food.

2nd course: rice crepe with ground shrimp and pork cooked in a banana leaf (banh Hue)

My third course was slammed down before me: grilled chicken with lemon leaves (ga nuong la chanh). I tasted it, emitted a happy little groan -- lemon leaf is an amazing ingredient -- but then realized that of the three dishes I'd been served so far, none of them seemed very different from dishes I'd ordered elsewhere in Vietnam. They just came in smaller portions and with fancier garnishing.

3rd course: grilled chicken with lemon leaves (ga nuong la chanh)

I finished the grilled chicken in a hurry, and soon found myself facing a pretty little plate full of nothing for me to eat but a steamed king prawn (tom xu hap). I mixed some pepper and lime juice and devoured it, leaving the head until the end to suck on. I returned my waitress's glare as she stomped away with my plate.

4th course: steamed king prawn (tom xu hap)

Her attitude had long been annoying me, but for the sake of an article I wanted to write about Imperial Cuisine, I asked her, when she returned with my fifth course, if it would be possible to interview the restaurant owner. Only then did she become a little friendlier, or at least willing to talk to me. She left to check with the manager. I looked at my fifth dish then and was disappointed to find more mi noodles. They were light, and the veggies were crisp and tasty, but I couldn't help tasting part of my first course again.

5th course: fried noodles with vegetables (mi xao rau)

To finish things off, I was served a dish of flan with slices of papaya curled around candied lotus seeds. The dish was one of the prettiest on my menu, and the combination worked well, too. The flan was excellent, and the candied lotus seeds were sweet and chewy, with a bittersweet aftertaste.

6th course (after steamed rice): creme caramel (kem flan)

Overall, the food was quite good. If the service had been friendlier, I'd be able to recommend this place more enthusiastically. But despite my experience, I can still suggest that you try Phuoc Thanh Garden, particularly if you’re in Hue and staying in the tourist district. The price of my meal was a mere 170,000 dong ($9.72). This is the kind of culinary experience – for the taste and artistry of the food, and also for the service – that you'll remember for a long time.

Phuoc Thanh Garden is located at 30 Pham Ngu Lao Street. Their telephone number is (054) 383-0989.

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