THANKS to the popularity of Lea Salonga and the breakthrough almost-all-Pinoy star cast of “Miss Saigon,” my most striking impression of Vietnam is one where the heat is on in Saigon; where outside day starts to dawn, the moon still floats on high, the birds awake and the stars shine too. A land that has experienced the bitterness of war yet has kept alive hope and faith for a better tomorrow.
True enough, in spite of the destruction wreaked by the Vietnam War, the country has recovered to become one of the biggest rice exporters of Asia. Since the war ended in 1975, rice production has increased at an annual growth rate of 5 percent, making it possible for Vietnam to be a major rice exporter since 1989.
These statistics have nothing to do with this review – I just like remembering stats on agriculture – except that today’s subject is a lovely little Vietnamese restaurant on Perea Street in Legaspi Village, Makati named Ba Noi. Ba Noi, according to the menu, means grandmother on the paternal side. I guess even in Vietnam the influences of the matriarch, even or especially in the kitchen, are not only respected but highly regarded. It is a statement of commitment to authenticity, I guess. And fortunately, the restaurant delivers.
It is a small and simple restaurant, really: wooden tables and chairs, simple yet inviting photographs of Vietnam’s people and places on the walls, a counter at the end, and music fit for a spa in the air. But while it is austere, it is by no means shabby. If this were the US, I’d wager this is the kind of place where you’d see chic trendsetter celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Natalie Portman dropping by after yoga and then raving about it to friends. “There’s this small resto on so-and-so with to-die-for spring rolls,” I can almost hear them say.
Because that’s exactly what Ba Noi is. A small restaurant seating about 40, with authentic Vietnamese cuisine and to-die-for fresh spring rolls.
Vietnamese cuisine is the healthy eater’s culinary heaven. It has the pouncing flavors of Thai cooking from ingredients such as chili, coriander and basil, but the overall effect is less biting. This must be because of its culinary philosophy of incorporating yin and yang in the selection of ingredients.
But whether the influence is philosophical, cultural, agricultural or just plain gastronomical, the effect is fabulously healthy yet fabulously yummy eating. The noodles, for one, would make any sick person well. From the aroma of the broth, which invites you to partake of the soup with scents of coriander and lemongrass, to the warm yet refreshing soup, to the very fine and smooth flat noodles… it doesn’t matter whether you order beef, chicken or seafood, the noodles will put a smile on your face.
The fresh spring rolls (goi cuon) are also the perfect answer to those who bug you to eat healthy. Noodles are wrapped in a very thin rice paper. Inside is a piece of sweet basil, a small slice of pork and a piece of shrimp. It is cold on the tongue when you bite into it—perfect for hot Manila. Another healthy starter is the shrimp and pomelo salad. The pomelo is sliced, sprinkled with sesame seeds, and laid out on a bed of lettuce leaves. You can opt to wrap the pomelo and shrimp in the leaves and bite into this or you can opt to do it the Western way and toss and slice the leaves on your plate. Either way it’s masterfully flavorful. The Vietnamese are clearly good not only at fresh starts, but also at fresh starters!
The main dishes are masterfully delicious yet healthy as well. Even the beef items. The beef stew is very tender, with its saltiness balanced by a side of lime and plain white rice. The lemongrass beef is exceptional. As with the pomelo salad, lettuce leaves are laid out on a plate like a round fan. Atop this are the pellets of beef with lemongrass, with a sweet chili sauce in the middle. You drizzle the beef with the sauce and wrap the meat in the leaves. The herbs announce their arrival yet it is still the taste of the beef that has the biggest impact. Bo Nuong is this dish’s name and it must truly be a Ba Noi recipe. Because it is superb.
The chicken recipes also have their own character. One choice is the caramel chicken (Ga Ro Ti), which is obviously chicken in a sweet sauce. It is a distinct method of cooking chicken that makes the dish memorable. On the other end of flavor is the Vietnamese chicken curry, which is spicy as expected, but more tempered than other countries’ curries.
Vegetables also take center stage in terms of savory flavors. The spinach makes such heavy use of soy sauce and roasted garlic it is almost Filipino. But those who are in search of umami may appreciate this veggie dish.
End the meal with a cup of Vietnamese coffee, served in a single cup coffee maker. Watch as the coffee drips into your cup and appreciate the rich, strong blend of Vietnamese coffee sweetened with condensed milk.
With food so fresh, herbs so abundant, condiments so elaborate (chili, salt, pepper, lime, fish sauce, soy sauce, the list goes on!), there is everything to love about Vietnamese food. Especially as presented by the kitchen of Ba Noi. This is one Vietnamese grandmother you are sure to love. •
Ba Noi. G/F Greenbelt Mansions, 106 Perea St., Legaspi Village, Makati. Tel. 893-7359, 666-1083. Open Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.