There were many sauces available, but no one seemed to season their dishes in any way… so we followed suit.
HOTEL MAJESTIC
Saigon – Vietnam
Est. 1925
The hotel’s logo, embossed in gold, is on the small, pink giftbox at every seat. A waiter is coming around moving it off to one side, then taking the napkin, unfolding it, and placing it in each person’s lap for them. I adjust mine a little bit and wonder what dinner will bring.

I’ve been prepared for a large dinner all day – even my 5 o’clock ice cream reward was adorably portioned! But even then, I didn’t really quite know what to expect. All I knew was the traditional number of courses: Eight.

My new English-speaking, same-hotel-living (all this is still frying my brain at this point) friend, Malte, and I are escorted to what we eventually determine is some kind of ‘international’ table. We made small talk with the people at our table – there were many English speakers, and (perhaps?) two Japanese speakers. It boded well for our meal.

More foil!

At this point I should note that as a resident who doesn’t speak the language (yet), I’m used to largely just ordering things that look tasty and rolling with it. I’ve had a lot of success this way – I’m not too picky and I don’t have any dietary restrictions (excepting milk, which doesn’t phase me as much as it used to), so I’m free to just find what I like by trial and error.

The special occasion of a wedding, though, was something where I knew I wanted to know what was going in my mouth – the calibre of the restaurant and hotel suggested a very tasty and complex meal might be coming. I wasn’t nervous, but I did want to know what I’d be eating. I’d resigned myself (again) to the fact that I just might never know.

But, hallelujah! The menu is in Vietnamese and English. WHEW! After getting settled, Malte and I delved in…

Elegance apparently includes tacky clipart
from the ’30’s – the menu was litered with it.

There was one menu per table, and it contained the expected eight courses, as well as the Groom’s recommended beverage suggested gravy on the right. I’m sorry my camera is so dark!

I’ll be going through this dish by dish. If you want a recipe for anything please message or leave a comment and I can try to find everything. As it is this is taking so long because I’m trying to get all the Vietnamese characters right, haha!

The first things that happened, as I mentioned before, were the waiters that came around and removed the chocolate boxes from our plates, shook out our napkins, and placed them in our laps. The little pizza things came around right away, and we spent the next few moments laughing about how the locals told us it was pizza, before we discovered the menu and saw it really WAS called pizza!

Course 1
Bánh Pizza Jambon

Mini Ham Pizza
Success with: Fingers

This was a little piece of dough with a slice of ham and a piece of a melted cheese on top. It was delicious. The dough was like a more pliable pita bread; it was a little open in the middle. This came around before the ceremony. I don’t know what the seasoning was.

NOTE: I’ve now translated the thing that we thought was a “Recommended Drinks” list to the right of the menu, and it is instead, literally, “Gravy.” Whoops! Misheard! This kind of thing happens all. the. time.

Course 2
Châ Giô Majestic, Gơi Gà Cư Sen
Mực Chièn Giơn, Gã Nai Xổ Thịt Cua

Majestic Spring Roll, Lotus Root with Chicken Salad
Deep Fried Squid, Venison Tendon with Crab Meat Sauce
Success with: Chopsticks

Nưôc Chám [Gravy]:
Nưôc mám ngọt, tương cà

Sweet Fish Sauce, Tomato Sauce


A very tasty combination of fried foods, vegetables and textures. The spring roll and squid were good (the squid particularly so – this is the first fried food I’ve had in HCMC), and I even got my eggroll in my mouth adeptly using my chopsticks! (It was a minor, yet important victory.) Malte and I laughed about our attempts to use the chopsticks, and the Bride’s brother kindly ordered us a set of silverware (he admitted a few minutes later). I was able to eat a large portion of the meal with my chopsticks, though! I’m getting a little better at using them.

There was a wide variety of textures on this plate, too. The most extreme texture was a cube of venison tendon. This was my second-ever experience with tendon. I didn’t really like it the first time. I tried this anyway. It was more of a cube than the longer, stringier pieces I got in my pho in Chicago. I was still weird and rubbery, but the sauce complemented it, especially after I bit into it. After I got over the “mouthfeel thing” it was good, and maybe even enjoyable. We spent a few hilarious minutes trying to translate ‘tendon’ into German to tell Malte what it was – I think the lucky guy got two pieces! He wasn’t impressed.

…I was glad I got only one. I finished my plate.



Course 3
Sủp Cua Sò Diệp

Crab Meat with Scallop Soup
Success with: Porcelain Soup Spoon

Nưôc Chám:
Nưôc tương

Soy Sauce

I assumed from the menu that this would be a much heavier and thicker soup, but it ended up being thinner and more refreshing. It was still hot, which was not a plus (all the hot food, combined with the scant breeze and amount of people,  was an unfortunate mix. A sweaty, unfortunate mix… although it wasn’t REALLY a problem until we got to the Hot Pot course much later.

The seafood tastes weren’t strongly apparent in this soup, which surprised me. It was the perfect balance of crab meat, some kind of greenery, pieces of what could have been either tofu or scallops, dropped egg, and noodles. I’m unsure about the use of tofu here – in America it is largely a stand-alone meat replacement, but here it appears to have other dimensions, including being used for its texture or taste in meat dishes.

It was a fantastic broth – I’ll be putting “VN SOUPS” on my to-cook list, starting with seafood!

Course 4

Tôm Xào Hải Sâm Với Rau Cải
Sautéed Shrimp with Sea Cucumber and Vegetables
Success with: Chopsticks

Nưôc Chám:
Nưôc tương

Soy Sauce

I KNEW I missed a picture of something in here! Oops! This was a great little salad-like dish – very light. M complains that the shrimp cooked here don’t taste like shrimp, and, on thinking about it, he’s right in saying that. While I’m used to richer shrimp (cooked with, say, butter and garlic) this one (there was just the one piece) was not as flavorful and rich as I expect shrimp to be. Presumably it tasted more like actual shrimp?

However, I still enjoyed it, and it matched the crispy lightness of the sea cucumber and other vegetables well. Sadly, I don’t remember what else was on the plate – I think some cucumbers and carrots and possibly cabbage. Shame on me for missing a picture!


Course 5
Vịt Quay Xốt Hoisin – Bánh Bao

Roasted Duck with Hoisin Sauce – Chinese Bread
Success with: Fork and Knife, Chopsticks

Nưôc Chám:
———–

———–

This was the most troublesome dish to eat. It reminded me of the Battle with the Bones that I had when I went to the mall and tried to eat frog – bones were larger here (THANK GOD) but it was just as difficult to eat – all the bones were in places I didn’t expect them. I gave up with chopsticks fairly quickly and set about to hacking the skin and flesh from the remaining bones and setting it in a pile.

Once I denuded the bones, I REALLY enjoyed this dish – the skin was glazed in a Hoisin sauce and was delectable! The duck melted in my mouth and I fought for every last piece of it. The tiny bun was a ‘Chinese Bun’ and was a perfect complement – it was lightly baked and filled with a tan cream, like a rigid creme-puff. It tasted sweet, but with my inability to tell fruits from vegetables in this strange land, who the hell knows what was actually in it.

This dish was a highlight of the evening, regardless of how difficult it was to eat!

Course 6
Căi Ró Xâo Nấm Dông Cô & Jambon Xố Dầu Hàu

Seaweed Kailan with Chinese Mushrooms and Ham in Oyster Sauce
Success with: Chopsticks

Nưôc Chám:
Nưôc tương

Soy Sauce

BUMMERVILLE. I missed ANOTHER picture! Probably because this dish was fairly boring (and we’d been eating and drinking and talking for an hour and a half at this point). It was several button mushrooms and sautéed greens with a single piece of ham glazed in Oyster sauce.

It was good, but apparently not picture worthy (even in my mind). The ham was the best part of it. Wellllllll…. ok, the mushrooms were really good too. But I’m such a sucker for mushrooms, you’d really have to mess ’em up before I won’t eat them.

[Note: I’m truthfully unsure about the accents as we go across the page – I don’t know if you can see, but my picture of the menu is fairly blurry, especially on the left side. Soon, hopefully, I’ll be getting a smartphone with a better camera (AND MAPS, of course).]

Course 7
Lầu Hải Sản Majestic Hoa Dồng Nội – Bún Gạo

Majestic Seafood with Assorted Flower Hot Pot
– Rice Vermicelli
Success with: Chopsticks, Porcelain Soup Spoon

Nưôc Chám:
Nưôc mắm

Fish Sauce

This was our penultimate dish, and one that I haven’t had the chance to try yet here in Asia, although it was on my shortlist! You KNOW that when that waiter brought out the Hot Pot and lit a fire, it was the end for me, figuratively speaking. To add an entire fire, plus a boiling pot of broth, to the center of each table was the LAST STRAW – it was BONKERS HOT. Malte had to get up and leave, but I didn’t want to miss seeing what they ended up putting in the pot so I dealt with the sweat dripping down my chin and onto my tie and dress shirt and watched eagerly for the expected play of raw foods and meats that would inevitably be poured into the bowl.

For those of you unfamiliar, a Hot Pot is (well) exactly that. It is a pot full of boiling broth, set over a medium-low flame at the center of the table, and eventually filled with raw veggies and meats that cook rapidly in the pot. Thank god the breeze had started to blow in off the river and through our window by this time of the evening (it was about 8:45pm)!

We watched as the waiter brought a tray laden with goodies, including some meat/dough biscuits, carrots, shrimp, crab meat, and what looked like the orange flowers from some type of squash.

As it cooked, we waited and chatted. Soon a waiter arrived once more and, taking each of our bowls in turn, placing a small bird’s nest of dried rice vermicelli in the bottom, and filled them with a broth, meat, and flower mixture from the pot. Each item was delicious and perfectly cooked, and the boiling broth cooked the noodles in seconds.

This is a very popular type of meal here in Vietnam. M had eaten hot pot for lunch, so he was a little tired of it, but I enjoyed the heck out of it, and look forward to having it again. The biscuit drops were especially excellent, and I wish I knew what they were called or what they were made of – I’d like to try my hand at something like this in the coming months.

Course 8
Chè Nhãn Kiểu Mã Lai

Longan in Syrup, Malaysian-Style
Success with: Porcelain Soup Spoon

Nưôc Chám:
————

————
This was our final dish, and was a tasty dessert after the salt, spice, and umami flavors of the rest of the dinner. It was filled with rambutan, longan, grapes, and something else unidentifiable that was just as tasty. Basically, a little fruit cocktail to end our evening, and very nice and cool.

It was at this point that we realized we were shedding table members, and upon looking around noticed that there was a steady stream of the elderly leaving. We weren’t really very sure what was happening – no light-up disco floor? No DJ full of tunes to listen to while I watch from a chair near the bar? What?? But it was only 9:30pm! True, we’d heard a little bit of the entertainment from the main room, but it was still a very odd and abrupt ending to the evening.

Eventually we found the groom and our English-speaking table compatriots and they confirmed that, yes indeed, the party was over. It was really more like a 3 hour dinner than a party. In the confusion I backed up and stepped on someone’s toe and they sat down like they expected me to either pick them up for the night or buy them a drink or something. I felt bad, but “I’m so sorry” was going to have to cut it – I was geniunely unsure if the woman was really a woman, or a man in drag, or if she just wanted some kind of elaborate apology from me in Vietnamese. She was a bit on the mannish side. We gathered our bags and, after congratulating the parents of the bride and groom once more, we headed for the elevator.

So what do you do when you’re primed for a NIGHT OUT and then get only an expertly executed meal and a steady supply of fresh beer?

It was clearly time for an after-party. Malte and I headed for the Saigon nightlife.

____________________________

The Wedding links:

The Wedding: The Invite and the Traditional Gift
The Wedding: Culture, Confetti, and an Awesome Surprise
The Wedding: Food, Conversation, and Bia in the Evening Heat
The Wedding: Choose Your Own After-party Adventure