by Rob Lowe
Vietnam on my mind. In the news of late has been an entire spate of journalistic musings about the current rush to reopen that ancient kingdom to business with the western world. Indeed, European and other Asian nations have their entrepreneurs, fiscal feathermerchants and commercial carpetbaggers virtually aswarm over the gorgeous countryside and throughout the bustling cities. It’s ily a matter of time ’til Hanoi and Saigon (just —can’t bring myself to write “Ho Chih Minh City”) will once again be international business centers.
Even retired Adm. Elmo Zumwalt came calling, ostensibly to assess the dreadful damage done by his “baby,” Agent Orange. With the MIA/POW brouhaha maybe on permanent hold, very little stands in the way of Dee Cee and Hanoi becoming mutually supportive diplomatically and commercially.
These thoughts took old Rob back to the ‘Nam of 40 years ago. A young staff sergeant wandering the beautiful city of Saigon when it was still called ‘The Paris of the Orient,” and the land was known as Indochine. The French influence was still everywhere, since they’d just been given the boot by the “ragtag” army no one thought could beat anybody.
Memories…strolling down Rue du Catinat (later re-dubbed To Do), stopping by the friendly sidewalk cafes for the occasional SanSan Bier while fanning flies away…early evening drinks at the old Majestic Hotel, on the palm-fringed veranda…surf swimming of the terrific, clean sandy beaches at Cap du St. Jacques (later Nha Trang). The Chinese enclave of Cholon (where I stayed for weeks in the tiny Kola Hotel) with some of the finest restaurants on Planet Earth. And most beautiful women. There was this one half-Brazilian, half-Chinese lovely, called “Lucky”… Ah, yes: 1954.
Well, this spasm of nostalgia whetted my appetite for Vietnamese cooking, a hankering that took me to the absolutely beautiful, tastefully decorated Vietnamese restaurant Dusit Thien Duong, actually just down the street from the Weekender’s offices in Bunkyo-ku. Let me tell you something: this lovely, peaceful, cathedral-quiet dining oasis is a far cry from the crowded, noisy, always-bustling sidewalk restaurants in Saigon in days of yore. Remembering the ubiquitous nuoc mom (a thick, pasty sauce made of fish leavings, an olfactory stunner calculated to knock your hat in the creek, shall we say, a bit pungent)…and the floating Saigon River-side dining spot My Chanh, blown to smithereens by Claymore mines left alongside on the levee and satchel charges. Scores of dead and injured, courtesy of Charles.
Ooops. Reminiscing again—and this is supposed to be a restaurant review.
Up front, let me say that I heartily recommend Dusit Thien Duong, not only for the delicious, meticulously prepared and colorfully served cuisine, but also for the relaxing decor and friendly atmosphere. The manager Junichi Takahashi makes you feel at home and the polite, efficient serving staff make the meal an absolute joy. My companion and I enjoyed a ¥7,000 “course” dinner which brought back memories of Vietnam to this crusty old geezer and culinary delight for my lady friend, a first-time taster of ‘Nam delicacies.
This “course” (there’s also a ¥10,000 deal) consisted of three kinds of appetizers, which were fresh spring rolls with shrimp and mint; deep-fried shrimp and pork pie; sugar cane stick wrapped with minced shrimp. A delightful beef and spicy vegetable salad broke the meal, followed by a crepe made of crab and vegetables. Bean noodles with pork ribs, Vietnamese style followed, with a side dish of rice laced with steamed chicken. Dessert was a banana fritter, hot and tasty.
Let me emphasize that each of these dishes has that distinctive Vietnamese flavor with certain herbs and spices prepared with an easily identified taste. I just love the food of Southeast Asia. A helpful (I hope) suggestion: They could offer a choice of more spicy, which is to say “hotter,” condiments and seasonings. I like it, shall we say, piquant.
There’s also an a la carte menu, featuring “Autumn Special” items with individual servings of our special “course.” On the regular menu are hors d’oeuvres with Mussels “Danang Style” crepe (¥1,200), grilled chicken skewers “Saigon Style” (¥1,200), Blue River lobster wrapped in rice paper, Vietnamese dumpling stuffed with minced pork and black mushrooms (¥1,200), and a variety of spring rolls. They feature a duck soup with rice noodles and green asparagus that I’m told will make you weep with joy (¥1,400). And a hot and sour prawn soup with pineapple and cherry tomatoes (¥1,400). A small but elegant menu of salads and dim sum dishes.
Next time I plan to look into their barbecued King Lobster (¥2,700) or maybe a stir-fried abalone and shrimp dumpling in oyster sauce (¥7,000). Maybe not. Meat dishes include lots of pork selections, charcoaled chicken, “Bienmenfu” sirloin steak (¥4,800); several beef and duck dishes, too. An entire page is filled with rice and noodle dishes with lots of vermicelli tricks. Let me repeat that all of these fine dishes are prepared with the special herbs and spices unique to the Southeast Asian sphere.
We drank BGI Vietnamese beer, a bit pricy at ¥1,000 per can, but Dusit Thien Duong also boasts a small but elegant wine list with prices not exorbitant.
This fine restaurant—just down Sotobori-dori from Tokyo Dome (on the same side of the street) in the basement of the handsome Moon Palace Century Tower—really should be tried. Free parking.
The building is located between Suidobashi and Ochanomizu stations on the JR Chuo line, sort of adjacent to the famed Juntendo Hospital. (Have a nose job while you wait.) The management is celebrating the restaurant’s third anniversary with several special deals. Consult Manager Takahashi. They have sister restaurants in Bangkok and Bern, Switzerland. The address is 2-2-9 Hongo, Bunkyo-ku; tel: 5800-0099. I’m going back.