Where the ocean is found on a plate
Delicious food can sometimes remedy a tired soul, in the most enjoyable and happy of ways. Bui Quynh Hoa tries some seafood saviours.
Summer in Vietnam’s north is not just crazy hot but also crazy wet. We headed off on a working trip from Hanoi to Thanh Hoa City on a day when all it seemed to do was rain. It fell and fell and fell, with no sign of an end and stymieing our hopes of snapping some great photos and video and setting up interviews along the way. But God, or whoever decides these things, was on our side. After three hours on the road, about 160 km south of Hanoi along National Highway No. 1 through Phap Van, Cau Gie, Ninh Binh, was Sam Son, the well-known beach destination in Thanh Hoa. And, fortunately for those camera and video lenses, sunlight danced amid a sea breeze while gentle waves lapped ashore. The rain had gone. We worked to finish. Everyone took care of what they had to.
|MAKING MAGIC: Chef Nguyen Nhu Hoang on the job. VNS Photos Truong Vi|
Time flew in those late afternoon hours, and we found ourselves fading and in need of a large meal.
It would be wrong not to have seafood when salt air caresses your skin. We headed to Rạm Biển 36 Restaurant in nearby Thanh Hoa City, which has great reviews from local people and tourists alike for its delicious food, top-notch service, and, especially, low prices.
Thirty or so staff were receiving on-the-job training when we arrived. The two-storey restaurant was quite large, at about 800 square metres, and elegant, with two sides facing two streets. Its main hall could seat about 40 people, while five VIP rooms can cater to 12-30 people each. Then there was the big garden, for about 250 people. All were fully equipped and boasted a European décor.
Chef and part-owner Nguyen Nhu Hoang, 39, welcomed us with a bright smile. He showed us around and passionately introduced us to Thanh Hoa’s seafood specialities and seafood from elsewhere in Vietnam and from abroad, as well as his very own dishes, which combine Vietnamese and European influences.
We were impressed by the restaurant’s vintage décor and especially the tanks of fresh seafood. Included in the selection for guests are Alaska shrimp, King crab, and Elephant Trunk clam from Canada, flounder and abalone from South Korea, and Vietnamese specialities like “Mẹm” fish from Thanh Hoa, stonefish from Vung Tau, sea eel from the central region, crab from Ca Mau, and oysters, squid, sweet snails, lobster, and sea cucumber from the north.
|TWIN TREAT: Grape seaweed salad is not only delicious but also good for the health.|
Unable to wait any longer, we embarked on our culinary exploration, initially with grape seaweed salad and tropical veggies and prawn crackers (VND89,000 a dish or US$4). Wow. The eye-catching presentation resembled a garden of colourful flowers. The crispness of the prawn crackers mixed with the sour, slightly hot, and salty and sweet taste of the salad saw us all nod our heads in approval. And we loved it even more after hearing Chef Hoang describe the benefits of grape seaweed, or sea grapes of green caviar or caulerpa lentillifera, as it’s scientifically known.
Grape seaweed is harvested at a depth of 500 to 600 metres, which enriches it in minerals, omega-3 fatty acids, and heavy metals from the ocean.
“It contains high volumes of minerals, including phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, and copper, and balanced amino acids, vitamins, free fatty acids, and proteins,” Hoang explained to us.
“In addition to being a high-value food item, it also has industrial and biomedical uses, with anti-inflammatory, skin lightening, anti-oxidant, anti-viral, and anti-cancer properties.”
|ALMOST COMPULSORY: Raw grouper served with tropical veggies and Thanh Hoa style sauce is an absolute must.|
We then tried raw grouper (VND490,000 a kilo to make the dish), served with tropical veggies and, especially, Thanh Hoa style sauce, which local people call chẻo.
It was decorated quite beautifully, like a work of art. The fish skin had been shed, with the flesh cut into small slices and then the whole thing shaped back into its original form. The flesh was white in colour and delicious in texture. Hoang showed us how to roll it in cải xanh (green mustard) leaves, with chopped pineapple, red chilli, galangal root, lemongrass, and đinh lăng (polyscias fruticosa) leaves, eaten with chẻo.
“To bring an impressive experience to guests, along with fresh ingredients and eye-catching décor I have created my own chẻo,” Hoang said.
“It is a secret recipe, a mix of ground galangal root and chilli, chopped dried onion and garlic, fried and ground skin, fish bone and liver, pork fat, sugar, shrimp paste, turmeric, and mẻ [fermented rice - a type of Vietnamese sauce to make food sour] to strike a balance.”
|TOP TIP: Guests are recommended to try the grilled horn scallop with butter, garlic, and quail eggs.|
We continued with our mains of roasted lobster (VND980,000 a kilo to make the dish) with cheese served with grilled bite-sized bread; grilled horn scallops with butter, garlic, and quail eggs (VND200,000 a dish); and roasted Mantis shrimp (VND540,000 a kilo to make the dish) with tamarind sauce.
We barely knew how to express the pleasure we felt as we ate. Each dish truly was a delicacy on its own, served with white wine, of course.
|FAVOURITE: Roasted lobster with cheese served with grilled bite-sized bread is a popular dish among guests.|
Though we were full, a hot bowl of lobster porridge was a good way to finish such a huge meal, Hoang told us.
Porridge may sound quite mundane, something anyone could make anywhere, but Hoang’s lobster porridge was something else entirely and should not be missed. Glutinous rice, regular rice, lotus seeds, peeled mung beans, and lobster (which the chef took from the head and pincers of the lobster he used in the roasted lobster with cheese) together created a delicious and fragrant dish. And it’s even tastier when a little chopped onion, perilla leaves, coriander, fried onion, chilli powder, and pepper are added.
|SECRET: Lobster porridge, a trademark of Chef Hoang.|
After such a big meal, we agreed to skip dessert.
We were simply in Thanh Hoa to work, but Ram Bien 36 Restaurant, Lot 115-120, Dau Moi Market, Dong Huong Ward, Thanh Hoa City is more than enough reason to return. VNS
It’s a sunny mid-summer’s day at what is probably Vietnam’s largest public beach, Sam Son in Thanh Hoa Province, a drive of three hours or so south from Hanoi along National Highway 1
When you travel a long distance these days you stop by a service station to take a rest and get some food. The trick then was to spot where the trucks were to find good fresh at a reasonable price.