Noodlepie is not nuts for neon, but Vietnam is. If you’re not fluoresc-ing out front, inside and everywhere in between, so the theory goes, the scoffers with the coffers can’t see you, won't choose you, won't pay you. Ngu Vien at 40 Ky Dong Street adheres a la mode - it's just as garishly visible as any of the other restaurants in District 3. Further aesthetic punch is provided by the soul-less vibes that flood the half indoor, half outdoor restaurant with muzak-misery from a looped tape spool. It doesn’t look good, it sounds appalling, but Ngu Vien is packed.
The restaurant has an extensive menu, it is well-known for its Hue cuisine. There’s a delicacy to the regional dishes of Hue missing in other parts of the country and Ngu Vien serves 28 Hue specialities and there are four Sunday specials. However, a nibble at the nuances of Hue didn’t appeal on this visit as I decided to take a stab at 5 other dishes. First up was the chap above, Goi Rau Muong (“Water morning glory salad”) 33,000VD. Prawns, pork, pepper and peanuts served on a bed of stripped, fresh morning glory and a side dish of light fish sauce – chuck all of this sauce on - it’s a healthy option. The morning glory has a marvelous moorish crunch. It’s not a special dish although it does pack plenty of pleasant ruffage at this spread.
The meat in the meal is hidden away inside that coconut above. This is Bo Tai Nuoc Dua (“Rare beef in coconut”) 35,000VD. It was recommended by the waiter. Tres tender, thin strips of raw beef ‘cook’ in a slightly sweet spiced coconut sauce. There’s always the chew-factor worry when ordering raw or rare beef dishes in Vietnam, but this was excellent. The dish find of the night.
This is the southern standard, Ca Kho To (“Stewed fish Vietnamese style in bowl”) 27,000VD. The sweet caramelized fish sauce floods the clay bowl with its thick juices seeping into the fish flesh. Diners can choose from three kinds of fish - Ca Hu (“Catfish”), Ca Loc (“Snack-head fish” – think they mean Snake-head fish…) and Ca Tre (“Fatten fish”). I prefer the Ca Hu for this dish. I am sure the others work equally well, however I do find the Ca Tre a bit too fatty for this dish. This serving of Ca Kho To was first rate. The sauce is addictive and well worth pouring the remnants over rice for a mashed up baby food hit.
Last up was the Canh (soup). Ngu Vien has an extensive array of Canh on offer. I stongly recommend their Canh Chua Ca, but on this visit I plumped for a Canh-unknown, Canh Mang Ca Thac Lac (“Fish soup with bamboo shoots”) 38,000VD. There’s something about pounded fish lumps/balls that just doesn’t work for pieman and this rather fatty soup comes filled with them. There’s just no taste. And the texture is a turn off. This soup looks great and the bamboo is tasty enough, but I wouldn’t order this again. And with a whole page and a half of Canh on the menu, I won't have to.
The menu is vast; eel, frog, beef, squid, shrimp, crab and cua dinh (that's the kind of tortoise looking tense in the tank near the entrance). There are also six “special” Grouper numbers and seven Lau (steamboat hotpot type fella) dishes on offer. Whether or not you’re a fluorescent-fan or muzak-mad, you won’t come out of Ngu Vien hungry or dissatisfied. With rice and drinks for two persons, this meal came to 176,000VD. A hit. View the business card and in Vietnamese.