Thursday, 08/02/2024 08:40

Mạ Quán treasures the meticulousness of Vietnamese cuisine

Gia Linh

There has always been an inexplicable charm to Vietnamese cuisine: the contrast between its rustic simplicity and impeccable taste. Although Vietnamese food culture has been far elevated compared to the past with “spices” from modern culinary cultures, its meticulousness remains the standard.

Dishes from the central region, especially those from Huế City, are worth mentioning when it comes to meticulousness. Being the former capital city under the Nguyễn Dynasty, Huế is famous for having culinary delights that are ingrained with time-honoured traditions, costumes and beliefs.

Many well-known Huế dishes, once offered to royals and mandarins, are extremely detailed and relatively intricate in terms of both flavours and plating. Nem công (peacock-shaped fried egg roll) and chả phụng (phoenix-shaped pork roll) are examples of Vietnamese royal cuisine, with very few restaurants attempting to recreate them.

I was on a quest to find a dine-in restaurant where I could satisfy my curiosity for those dishes, then Mạ Quán in HCM City appeared first on the local listing, and I think it was a sign for me not to waste any more time.

Nestled on the first floor of an old apartment building on Đồng Khởi Street of the city’s busy District 1, Mạ Quán is no doubt an authentic Vietnamese restaurant from its design and interior. Designed to look like an ancient Vietnamese house, the venue uniquely stood out from the neon boards and signs of most restaurants in the area. 

Traditional wooden doors, tables and chairs, with warm, yellow-light lanterns, bring out the intimacy and home-like ambience. I was impressed by large spiral ceiling lights with traditional illustrations on them. There is also a small lounge right on the corner when stepping inside, which adds an interesting modern twist to the place.

Mạ Quán on District 1’s Đồng Khởi Street, HCM City, is a must visit for those seeking authentic and royal Vietnamese cuisine. VNS Photos Gia Linh

Mạ Quán offers a wide variety of dishes from the three regions of Việt Nam, especially specialties from Huế City. Prices are inviting, from around VNĐ139,000 to VNĐ500,000 (around US$6 to $20), and there is a school of options for alcoholic drinks and cocktails if you want to check out the lounge.

I started off with a refreshing gỏi mít non (young jackfruit salad) placed in an iconic Vietnamese shoulder yoke. It was a typical appetizer, with soft, slightly crunchy young jackfruit bulbs, fresh shrimp and boiled pork, nutty peanuts, and aromatic mint leaf water. The ingredients all came together under a tangy, umami taste of fish sauce. Paired with fried shrimp crackers, this dish could never go wrong.

Following that was grilled pork with yellow ant salt, and the flavour was nothing near what I had imagined. The pork had already been sun-dried, which added a little chewy aftertaste. A hint of Mui Kwe Lu, a Chinese cinnamon wine, hit the tip of my tongue when I first tasted the pork. Garnished on top were fried lime leaves, a crunchy, citrusy twist that enhanced the overall flavour.

'Gỏi mít non' (young jackfruit bulb salad) and grilled sun-dried pork with yellow ant salt will bring your taste buds to another level. 

The yellow ant salt might sound exotic, but after giving it a try, I could not resist. A special type of yellow ant was pan-roasted together with red chilli flakes and salt. With slightly tangy taste from the ants and spiciness from the chilli flakes, this salt helped minimise the greasy taste of the pork. I would whole-heartedly suggest you give this dish a try!

Chả phụng came last for the entrees, and it was true to 'save the best for last'. While both nem công and chả phụng are available as special dishes for the upcoming Tết (Lunar New Year) holiday, I opted for the latter since the taste of nem công is quite expected. Having heard of the dish before, I hoped to find complexity in the spectrum of flavours and textures.

The main ingredient of chả phụng is pork paste, made from super-finely grounded lean pork. It is crucial for the finished pork roll to be slightly crunchy, but also chewy. The seasoning also needs to be as light as possible to maintain the natural savoury taste of all the ingredients.

The pork paste is meticulously made into a cylindrical shape, with long green beans and carrots in the middle, a layer of seaweed was used to cover the pork roll, and the outermost was a layer of thinly fried egg, which was steamed before being sliced.

'Chả phụng' (phoenix-shaped pork roll) is among Mạ Quán’s Tết specialties that represent the charm of Vietnamese cuisine. 

The meticulous plating was what makes chả phụng the iconic royal dish, with carefully carved carrots resembling a phoenix's head and shredded scallions for its body. Each piece of chả phụng was purposely arranged to resemble the phoenix’s wings. With that, chả phụng was the perfect representation of the elegance and power of the emperor back then.

The dish had a complicated yet simple and light taste at the same time. I was able to go over different textures, from soft to crunchy to silky and enjoyed the freshness of every element. Chả phụng was truly the star of the night considering its taste and decoration.

I would say the portions were not extremely large, nor were they infinitesimal like other fancy fine-dining restaurants. They were delicate and enough for you to enjoy, but you ended up wanting more once you finished them.

Our bill came to a total of over VNĐ900,000 ($36) including VAT tax and service charge. With professional service, high quality ingredients, authentic tastes, and meticulous presentation, I would opine that they made the price reasonable. 

Mạ Quán would be added to my list of recommendations, and I would surely revisit it to dive deeper into their culinary world and try out their drinks. VNS

Mạ Quán

Address: 1st Floor, 153/02 Đồng Khởi Street, Bến Nghé Ward, District 1, HCM City

Opening hours: 7am to 11pm

Facebook: www.facebook.com/maquancusine/

Phone: 0869 537 838

Comment: A contemporary Vietnamese restaurant and lounge with authentic, rustic yet complex dishes.

Comments (0)

Related content