January 11, 2008
2 Lam Son Square
District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
White bread with creamy pesto and olive oil (complimentary)
Duck Carpaccio ($12)
Bucatinni, Sardines, Dill, Pine Nuts, Raisins ($9)
Rigatoni, Basil, Mint, Eggplant, Swordfish ($10)
Banana Tart with Caramel ($8)
As part of my holiday present from The Astronomer, I was treated to an Italian dinner at Opera. The restaurant is located inside the Park Hyatt Saigon, which is the swankiest hotel in town. How swanky? When Brad and Angelina are in the adopting mood, they always stay at the Hyatt.
We had reservations at 6 PM last Friday night and were seated immediately upon our arrival. Our table was covered in a white tablecloth and had a nice view of the open kitchen, which featured a wood-fired oven.
The best part of the open kitchen experience was hearing the cooks Vietnamese-ize Italian words like arugula (“a roo goo la”—four words) and bucatini (“boo ca ti ni”—four words). It reminded me of how my family Vietnamese-izes American words like apartment (“a pag toe mang”—four words). It’s good to know that mono-syllabic languages can adapt to multi-syllabic ones!
Our waitress didn’t hover over our shoulders as we perused the menu, which was a novel experience for The Astronomer who hasn’t been back stateside since last September.
After we placed our orders, we were served bread with a pesto and olive oil dip. The bread, which was warmed-up in the wood-fired oven, was toasty on the outside and fluffy on the inside. Unlike Vietnamese baguettes, this bread had plenty of soft innards for me to dig into. It had been forever since The Astronomer experienced pre-dinner bread and pesto; he was totally in heaven.
For our appetizer, we shared the Duck Carpaccio, which was served with a mesclun mix dressed in olive oil and vinegar, black pepper and goat cheese. The salad was, you know, a salad. The carpaccio, on the other hand, was fabulously executed and melt-in-your mouth tender. The strong essence of duck really rocked our taste buds.
For our entrees, we shared two pastas. My favorite of the evening was the rigatoni with basil, eggplant and swordfish. The menu claimed there was mint in this dish, but neither The Astronomer or I could taste it. I was thrilled that the pasta (DeCecco) was prepared al dente. The hunks of eggplant and swordfish went perfectly well with the rigatoni. I usually find swordfish dry and steak-like, but these cuts were quite moist.
The Astronomer’s favorite was the bucatinni with sardines, dill, pine nuts and raisins. The dill and sardines were the stars of this dish, while the nuts and raisins played second and third fiddle. The Astronomer liked the unique combination of flavors, and found the dish light, yet satisfying. I thought that the dill was overwhelming, but the chunky sardine and tomato sauce was excellent.
For dessert, I chose a “banana tart.” What arrived was a cheesecake topped with sliced bananas and a nutty ice cream. Candied hazelnuts and a caramel-y sauce garnished the plate. The cheesecake was mild and creamy and had a killer graham crust, but not what I was in the mood for. I wanted a buttery tart filled with caramelized bananas and topped with an extra-rich caramel sauce.
Dinner at Opera was a wonderful escape from the Saigon grind and I hope to return again to try their wood-fired pizzas and more of their pastas.