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Sat 31 May 2008 04:00 AM

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Eastern exposure

Be ready to pamper your taste buds with Shangri-la hotel's hoi an restaurant, where authentic Vietnamese cuisine is the order of the day.

Be ready to pamper your taste buds with Shangri-la hotel's hoi an restaurant, where authentic Vietnamese cuisine is the order of the day.

At first glance, the Vietnamese-French eatery looked much as I expected: soft-tone walls, wooden shutters and the obligatory Miss Saigon-style ceiling fans. But there was something else, too.

When sitting in the chair pulled up for me by our host - a dignified woman going by the name of ‘War War' - I felt it again. A tug of tranquility. The place is muted; almost dark. And, combined with the discreet waiter service, the atmosphere is one of overwhelming calm.

But the real treat, I discovered, was to come much later.

The first delivery to our table was the amuse bouche, a pleasingly creamy cube of tofu delicately laced with shrimp; followed by a mélange of mini-starters, all seafood-related: coconut prawns in a rice basket with tropical fruit (piquant); spring rolls with shrimp (ordinary); crab meat with shitake mushroom (scrumptious) and lobster ravioli with coconut sauce (scrumptious).

For mains, my partner opted for lemongrass steak, with mince beef ball and garlic wedges, while I selected the charcoal-grilled chicken in lemongrass with pickle radish.

And while I must admit to an initial flash of envy when glimpsing the lashings of lean and tender beef being bestowed before my partner, it ceased when I bit into my soft, slightly slippery chicken. Expertly seasoned and grilled, the tenderness of the meat was accentuated by the crispness of the stir fry vegetables and stickiness of the sticky rice cakes.

My partner agreed that we were experiencing a ‘symphony of taste'. In fact, neither of us spoke for 10 minutes while we consumed our main courses. I gave the waitress my compliments and she nodded with her characteristic dignity.

It was all I could do to stop myself from making the journey into the kitchen and congratulating the chef in person.

Having offloaded my regards, I sipped on a glass of specially recommended Sancerre Blanc Exception 2003 - a thick, satisfying wine that only hits your taste buds after it has politely accosted the back of your throat.

A good choice, if a bit pricey, at around US$170. Having already experienced such an impressive array of tastes, we could barely wait to see what the desserts had in store for our collective palette. And we were not disappointed.

My partner and I shared the tropical fruit with coconut ice cream and egg white crisp dish, laced with a melon and raspberry coulee. It was clear that a meticulous dedication had gone into this even simplest of dishes.

The fruit was startlingly fresh and the ice cream tasted as if it had just been carved out of freshly-felled coconuts.

But while all this freshness and perfection clearly takes time, there were very long gaps between courses.

One gripe is that there's probably a happy medium to be had somewhere. All in all, while the service and the ambience at Hoi An are very calming, it is the stunning food that really makes this restaurant unmissable.

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