Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Cheap Eats - Little Saigon Grill

For years I've been buying my lunch, usually a cheese and tomato toasted sandwich and a box of vegetables, and sitting in Rowes Arcade in the city while scanning the paper.  It became a ritual for me, so much so that I've been out of sorts ever since Rowes Arcade shut down to be completely remodelled.

While sitting there eating my lunch and reading the sports pages, I would always look across the way and see a little Vietnamese shop doing a roaring trade and think to myself that I should get over and check it out.  Being such a creature of habit though (especially for lunch), I never got the chance to go and get some tasty Vietnamese for lunch before the arcade's closure.

What I never really thought too much about was the shop owners in Rowes Arcade that had to shut up shop and move due to the remodelling.  It wasn't until I saw that Jamie Oliver's 'Jamie's Kitchen' was moving into the arcade that I thought that those little shops might not come back.  With a spot like Jamie's Italian around, rent is likely to be just too expensive.

I was contacted out of the blue by one of my long term followers, who has luck would have it was the owner of that very same little Vietnamese shop that I sat across from every day and wondered about, Little Saigon Grill.  Thanh Tran had taken the move out of Rowes Arcade as a sign that there were bigger opportunities available and Little Saigon Grill had moved to bigger premises in Albert Street.  As a small business owner with limited budgets for marketing, Tranh asked me if I would be happy to come down and check out her new spot and it would be even better if I could bring along some food blogger friends to check out and provide feedback about her new venture.  I was only too happy to help a long time follower and helped arrange a bloggers get together!

We'd arranged to meet at Little Saigon Grill on a Saturday for banquet lunch, which would kick off from 11am.  I'm not sure how I managed this given I live so close, but I ended up being ten minutes late and then walked right on by the table set up and surrounded by a heap of my blogging buddies!  Talk about head in the cloud.  Embarrassing gaff avoided, only just, I found my seat and Thanh spent a little bit of time talking about Little Saigon Grill and what it stood for.  It was clear that Thanh had put everything into getting the shop ready and was incredibly proud of what she'd been able to achieve in such a short period of time.

It wasn't long before the food started coming out, with a huge bowl of vegetables including baby mustard leaves, mint, perila, basil and cucumber that were to be used to accompany the Vietnamese crispy pancake. Our traditional prawn and pork crispy pancake looked beautiful and golden brown on the plate, it was almost a shame to cut it into pieces and add to the lettuce cup.  The idea was to mix the pancake with seasonal herbs and vegetables and then wrap the whole lot in iceberg lettuce, then dip it in the sweet Vietnamese dipping sauce.  I could tell by the look of enjoyment on the faces around the table that everyone was enjoying this as much as I was.  It was so good, I ended up having three servings (don't judge me).

Next out was the pickled lotus and duck salad with sesame crackers, with the duck salad sitting in the middle of a pile of wonderful looking brown and black crackers.  It was another incredibly fresh looking starter that was quickly shared amongst the guests at our table and devoured even faster.  Most sesame crackers I've had before have been a little stodgy, but not these beauties, which were thick and crispy and tasted awesome once dipped in the sweet dipping sauce.  I really liked the duck, which had a subtle spicy flavour that did not detract from the natural gaminess of the fowl.  The crinkle cut vegetables added some crunch and texture to the dish at the same time as enhancing the feeling of freshness.

One of the specialties at Little Saigon Grill is their take on rice paper rolls and they have over ten varieties available daily.  Served on the day were the lemongrass chicken and hoisin roast duck, served with a big bowl of hoisin sauce covered in peanuts.  The rice paper was translucent and you could clearly see that they were packed with ingredients and full of vibrant colour.  I loved both varieties but couldn't make up my mind if they went better with hoisin sauce or dipped into the sweet dipping sauce from our first course.

It was time for another dose of salad, this time it was a green papaya salad with poached chicken and believe it or not, even bigger sesame crackers than before!  There was an interesting mix of flavours with this dish that were perfectly balanced.  The chicken flesh was quite a bit more subtle than the duck salad but this was made up for with a punchier salad and a coating of secret herbs and spices (I say secret because I didn't ask what they were) that provided a little extra oomph to the plate.

The food just kept on rolling and out came some 'com suon nuong' or grilled lemon grass pork chop.  I'm a big fan of pork in all of its many iterations but grilled pork chop is not something I usually order, mainly because I can never look past pork belly.  The pork chop was cut up and then presented with a fresh salad (there was a trend of dishes coming out with fresh salad) and as soon as the photos were taken a couple of pieces went into my bowl.  Look, I'm never going to love pork chops as much as I like pork belly but it was pretty good, with hints of lemon grass left on the palate after eating.  I was lucky enough to get some pork on the bone, so was able to gnaw at it for a while!

I was a bit apprehensive about the next dish too.  I've never been a fan of curries, particularly Indian curries, and was nervous about tasting the Vietnamese chicken curry with coconut and sweet potato.  Really, there was not a lot in this one for me, I don't like curries and I hate sweet potato but was quite amazed with how well the curry was put together and how much I enjoyed it.  I actually thought the sweet potato was carrot when I was eating it and had a couple of pieces in my bowl that got gobbled up along with the well cooked chicken.  It wasn't an overly hot curry and I most liken it to a Thai curry, which I can eat at times. I added some rice to the curry and was quite happy mopping the rest.

By this time I was getting ridiculously full and probably would have called it a day, but guess what came next.....  Yep, it was pork belly and there was no way that I was going to pass on trying out the slow braised pork belly in coconut juice with a boiled egg.  When Thanh brought the dish out she seemed a bit embarrassed about the dish saying it wasn't perfect and she felt that she didn't get the balance of flavours quite right.  I actually thought it was still really nice, with soft pork belly that literally fell apart as you tried to pick it up with chopsticks and the braising sauce was delicious too.  Even though I was full, I kept sneaking pieces of the braised pork into my mouth, all the time thinking I was going to burst at the seams.

Towards the end of our meal we were asked if we wanted to try something called Durian.  I'd never heard about this before but some of the more seasoned campaigners, especially those that had been to Vietnam knew exactly what was on offer.  For those of you who don't know Durian is a really stinky fruit native to South East Asia and it's an acquired taste to say the least.  Being game to try anything once, I was all for trying out a durian smoothy, which had some at the table filled with anticipation and others dread!  The smoothy looked suspiciously like a vanilla shake but there was an unusual smell and an even more unusual taste, which I'm not even capable of describing.  Would I have it again, maybe, but if given the choice I would probably opt for a berry smoothy, but it was certainly something I was happy I tried :)

With such an amazing and generous banquette, there was only one way to finish off the meal and that was with a very traditional plate of fresh seasonal fruit.  I love dragon fruit at the best of times and I was really pleased to finish off with something so refreshing.   We had a bit of a debate about the king of the fruits, with the table split between the fresh mango and cherries (I went for cherries as my favourite), but still loved the mango to finish off what had been an exquisite Vietnamese meal

Our meal was over and I was staggered with the generosity and quality of the spread that Thanh had put on for us.  We were promised that we would get a taste of traditional Vietnamese food and this was delivered, and then some.  We were really able to get a feel for Thanh's passion for food and have a little bit of her history and culture on a plate (well, several plates).

Looking around the table at the smiles of joy on the faces of my fellow bloggers, it was clear that everyone had enjoyed the food as much as I had.  The freshness and authenticity was wonderful and not something that you will get in the CBD too often.  Little Saigon Grill is currently open for lunches and by the look of it will definitely be the go to spot in the CBD if you want amazing hospitality and Vietnamese cuisine to put a smile on you face.

As I staggered home from lunch, I was as full as I can remember being in some time, in fact, when I got back home and sat on the couch, I lapsed into a food coma for an hour or so.  What a way to spend a Saturday afternoon!


**I was a guest of Little Saigon Grill for this banquet

Fresh vegetables are perfect for wrapping around a crispy omelette
The dipping sauce had the perfect balance of flavours
The rice paper rolls were a real treat
The durian was so powerful we ended up having little cups to try it out
Little Saigon Grill on Urbanspoon

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