From Halong Bay to the Mekong Delta, the flowers, fireworks and festive clothes are being readied: Soon the fun and feasting will begin. China and its vast diaspora may make the most noise at Lunar New Year, but it’s no less of a big deal in Vietnam.
Food plays an essential role in Vietnam’s Tet New Year celebrations, from the offerings of fruit piled up on family altars to special preparations of steamed sticky rice. In years past we have made special trips to share in the festivities. This time around, we will make do with a visit to a local Vietnamese restaurant. One of our current favorites is The Majestic.
It’s named after a classic colonial-era hotel on the waterfront of the Saigon River. But apart from the entrance, with its maroon awning, this friendly little restaurant, unobtrusively located in a basement on Aoyama’s Kotto-dori, puts on no airs or pretensions. The look is simple and comfortable, with reproduction furniture, a few ethnic accents and charming hand-painted frescoes on the walls.
But it’s not the decor or the shelves of foodstuffs on sale by the checkout that set the tone so much as the beaming smiles of the chefs — all women, all from southern Vietnam — that greet you from the kitchen. Immediately you feel reassured: Here you eat authentic home-cooked Vietnamese, not a jazzed-up, hotel tourist-brochure version of the cuisine.
You can tell this straight away, as soon as the first plate of goi cuon (fresh spring rolls) arrives. While too many places keep them in the fridge ready to go, they are prepared to order; the translucent wraps are perfectly soft (it takes experience to reconstitute the dry “rice paper” to exactly the right moistness); and they are stuffed with just the right balance of fresh shrimp, ground pork and salad greens. Top marks.
The Majestic also makes two other fresh-spring-roll variations that we like just as much. One has a fine sheet of omelet gleaming yellow through the outermost layer of the wrap and is served with a tasty peanut sauce. The other incorporates smoked salmon, avocado and cheese and is served with a thick mayonnaise-based dip.
Now you’re settled in, perhaps with a Vietnamese beer in hand — Saigon Special or 333 (pronounced “ba-ba-ba”), there’s little difference between these two light lagers — it’s time for an order of cha gio, deep-fried spring rolls. These are absolutely not to be missed.
Crisp and golden, the stubby, bite- size cylinders are stuffed with a mixture of minced shrimp and crab. They are served in a curious conical bamboo holder, with a similar basket holding lettuce, sweet basil and green shiso leaves, in which you wrap the spring rolls before drizzling them with a little of the accompanying sauce, a lightly fragrant mix of of nuoc mam (fish sauce) and rice vinegar with finely shredded carrot. We can’t get enough of The Majestic’s cha gio — and haven’t found better in Tokyo.
The only reason for not ordering a whole portion is to get them as part of the excellent mixed plate of hot starters. Along with a couple of the cha gio, you also get steamed spring rolls stuffed with ground pork and coriander leaf, with a sweet-spicy nuoc-mam dip; steamed dumplings (similar to jiaozi in Chinese cuisine) stuffed with pureed shrimp and served with a soy-sauce dip; and deep-fried spring rolls stuffed with a sweet mix of apple, nashi (Asian pear) and strawberry, for which the dip is a spicy mayonnaise-based concoction.
Why mention the dips? Because of the variety. In most other Vietnamese restaurants they are indistinguishable, usually just decanted straight from the bottle. Another example of the creativity and originality at work on the menu is the inclusion of bagna cauda. The classic Italian-style dip has been given a Vietnamese complexion, with a bubbling, spicy sauce and sticks of Okinawan vegetables to dunk in it.
The accent is firmly on vegetable dishes — Vietnamese cuisine is widely marketed in Japan as a light, “healthy” way of eating, and not surprisingly, 80 percent of the customers at The Majestic (we were told) are women. But the menu offers plenty of more substantial fare as well.
For the winter months there’s a viscous, red seafood hot pot that’s almost up to Sichuan levels of spiciness. The chicken wings are not only finger-lickin’ good, they are imbued with the delectable aromatic flavors of coconut and lemongrass. And we love the stir-fried prawns, with their thick, tangy tamarind sauce.
There is a good selection of noodle dishes, both pho (fine rice noodles) and bun (thick noodles), with light, flavorful chicken-based broths. We also like the rice with lotus seeds (com sen), which is wrapped in banana leaf and steamed. Instead of plain rice, The Majestic uses a mixture of red rice and long-grain jasmine rice, along with diced carrots, morsels of chicken and shrimp, plus the fat white lotus seeds.
All that’s needed to round off the meal is a cup of Vietnamese-style coffee, dripped over thick condensed milk — it’s so sweet that you hardly need one of the syrupy desserts.
For last year’s Tet observances, The Majestic prepared various celebratory dishes. This year the head chef is away, back in Vietnam, so nothing special is planned. Nonetheless, we will drop in during the holiday period to see what the kitchen is serving, and probably make a point of supping on bun bo hue, noodles cooked in the Hue style with cuts of beef. After all, it’s the start of the Year of the Ox. Chuc mung nam moi — a Happy Lunar New Year to all Japan Times readers.