Vietnamese is one of the many international cuisines that have been dancing around the periphery of Mumbai’s attention. Along with Korean, it’s been lingering on the edge of the spotlight for a few years now, patiently waiting for its chance to move centre stage. But that’s some way off for the moment as both the dominant Asian cuisines – Chinese and Thai – are undergoing something of a renaissance in the city. (Bengaluru and Delhi as usual have stolen the march with an outlet each of Blue Ginger, a specialty Vietnamese restaurant.)
The Vietnamese Food Festival at Pondicherry Café at Sofitel BKC was therefore a wonderful opportunity to sample a cuisine that’s not easily available. I was looking to a wonderful evening of bánh mì, the famous sandwich with a Vietnamese-flavoured filling in a French baguette; gỏi cuốn, the rice paper spring rolls and, of course, pho, the large filling noodle soup which is the national dish of Vietnam. Of the three, only pho was part of the menu – for that night at least. Chef Dao Van Son who has come down from the Sofitel Plaza Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, explained that he would be doing a different menu for each meal of the 7-day festival that started on Sunday, 25th May. However, he didn’t say specify if the spring rolls or the sandwich would feature on any of the menus.
The beauty of Vietnamese cuisine lies in the simplicity of the cooking, an abundant presence of noodles, the minimal use of spices and the reliance on fresh herbs to bring flavour to the food. All of this is captured beautifully in the pho which was the highlight of the meal: a rich, tangy stock (though missing the star anise, since it was made with chicken and not beef) in which lightly poached beef, plenty of chopped green onions, coriander leaves and shredded ginger sat on a bed of thick rice noodles. Filling and with simple with strong flavours it was difficult not to love.
With the emphasis on freshness it was not surprising that the salads were the most exciting part of the meal. It was interesting to see how three elements – sweet sour flavours, a healthy degree of crispness and crunch and an overwhelming use of herbs expressed themselves so differently in the three salads. While the sourness came from the green papaya in the green papaya with beef salad, tamarind brought sweetness to the duck salad. Shredded papaya and carrots in one, peanuts and crisp kakung in another and bell pepper cubes and sesame seeds in a third added the element of crunch. Fresh basil and coriander leaves brought a refreshing edge to the salads.
Apart from the Steamed Bekti in Soy sauce in which the flavour of the fish brought a magical sweetness to a gentle saltiness, the main course was good, but underwhelming. The star anise flavoured beef was tasty but failed to make an impact, the mixed seafood was tasty but forgettable, the broccoli and pak choy had been so overcooked that they were a little better than mush.
The most disappointing aspect to the meal was not the quality of the food but the inadequacy of the spread. For a festival all that was on offer were three salads, one live counter with a soup and salad, three non-veg main course, three veg main course, a noodle, a rice and three desserts. Surely a festival needs to be more exploratory and offer a broader selection from the cuisine. Even fixed price corporate buffet lunches come with more generous options.
Pondicherry Café though a cozy, cheery place has not made much of an impact on the dining scene in Mumbai and neither has Sofitel. Clearly, the young hotel hasn’t found its feet as yet and is struggling to make a mark, at least as far as F&B is concerned. Fortunately, the hotel has hired some great new talent in the form of Biswajit Chakraborty, a very experienced GM and Indrajit Saha, a young, passionate and enthusiastic Executive Chef. With the exciting festivals he got planned for the next few months, it looks like the city is in for a treat.