Seafood runs deep in Vietnam’s roots. It’s everywhere and in every form, notably in coastal cities like Nha Trang and down south in the Delta. Ho Chi Minh City gets more than its fair share from both ends.
While street joints fill with all manners of fried and skewered sea life, distinguished Vietnamese restaurants specializing in crustaceans and fish fare are not as abundant as one might think. Fortunately, those with some cash to burn and a craving for refined seafood in a comfortable environment have Song Ngu as an option, which won TripAdvisor's Certificate of Excellence award for 2015.
For nearly 20 years Song Ngu has been serving traditional seafood recipes, grouping Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Malaysian and a number of other cuisines into a nuanced menu.
While the focal point of Vietnamese eateries has been “fresh” seafood ad naseam, the statement appears kitschy coming from a country where processed food is more expensive. Song Ngu takes a step in the right direction by instead highlighting technique, timing and preparation rather than the evident freshness of its food; the restaurant’s hygienic kitchen is also a more palpable selling point.
Simply put, it’s great seafood at dignitary prices (think VND 800,000++ or more per person).
Inset past a pair of green walls are two bridged French villas. The interior is quoted to resemble the style of the Cham people, although it’s more reminiscent of the Viet-Franco art deco you see in Dalat than a Cham hut. The crowd is polite – mostly Asian and American businessmen or upper-middle class families (hence the abundance of private rooms that seat 8-50 people). Unless you’re sat by a company dinner party, expect a quiet meal. Prepare for a formal atmosphere and dress business casual, though the restaurant accepts most manners and styles of dress. Beginning at 7 p.m. a live band navigates the restaurant playing traditional Vietnamese songs on classic instruments such as the t’rung, a type of bamboo xylophone.
The staff is accustomed to dealing with high-profilers – prime ministers and other dignitaries have eaten at Song Ngu on occasion. So expect courtesy, prompt service and a professional attitude. The wait staff speaks little English but pointing to an item on the large menu should suffice. A fair warning: water is not served here in any other form other than bottled, which is a bit of a setback. On a more positive (read: boozy) note, cocktails are around the VND 70,000++ mark, which is oddly affordable for the fine establishment. And yes, they are quite good, as are the mocktails. They also have free Wi-Fi.
Seafood is the heart, soul, blood, bones and marrow of Song Ngu. In other words, you’re coming here because you are determined to splurge on crustaceans made with the precision and skill of a samurai swordsman. This doesn’t mean skimp out on the other offerings. We began with a Song Ngu Style house cocktail, consisting of vodka, orange curacao and pineapple juice, and two fresh spring rolls. The cocktail was balanced, not overly sweet and (we had to do a double take) VND 70,000++, while the rolls (VND 40,000++ a piece) went down clean with homemade peanut sauce. You can also order fried spring rolls of your choice for VND 40,000++ each. If we had to choose one, we’d pick the seafood spring roll four times over. The roll is breaded and fried, a tad crunchy and filled with squid, shrimp, scallops and banana bits. The banana gives the filling a soft texture and semi-sweet savor. The roll pairs well with a mayonnaise dip. After the appetizers, we moved on to the three main courses of seafood.
Drunken Tiger Shrimp (VND 250,000++):
As our host pointed at something behind us, we turned our necks to a waiter promptly lighting a bowl of skittering shrimp on fire, then sliding the critters into a clear pot of Chinese cooking wine over a dancing flame. The shrimp were then taken back to the kitchen to be boiled in water. The wine adds some bitterness to the shrimp while the boiling water takes the acridity to a more balanced level. A short while later we were brought the finished tiger shrimp on a platter. The best way to eat these guys is to take the rostrum (the horn-like part atop the head), pull upwards to break the upper shell and suck out the juices.
Mantis Shrimp (minimum VND 400,000++):
This giant shrimp is quite rare outside its peak season (between the first and second quarter of the year). They’re typically VND 2 million++ per kilogram, so expect to pay a minimum of VND 400,000++ per dish. Mid-season, try and ask for a mantis with eggs – they’ll be the ones with coagulated red “yolk” inside. The recipe is quite basic. The shrimp is fried in garlic and served with a side of salt and lime. But as our host explained, the art lies with timing and preparation. You may want to ask one of the waiters to show you how to eat a mantis shrimp. We were able to get a mantis shrimp with the eggs still inside. The coagulated red substance was waxy, like hardened yolk, and quite protein-rich – it may be an acquired taste for some. The meat was soft and buttery, with a subtle hint of garlic, which cooked through the shell evenly. With a bit of lime and a dash of salt, this was our favorite meal of the afternoon.
Song Ngu Fish Hotpot (VND 235,000++ for small pot with 1 tilapia and VND 335,000++ for a large pot with 2 tilapias):
The tilapia is cooked in pork and chicken stock, radishes and onions. While the fish is soft and relatively flavorless, the stock is reminiscent of a somewhat spicy tomato and vegetable soup, and has a rich, smooth mouthfeel. If you’ve had fish soup in central Vietnam, this is a less intense, more accessible alternative, and quite addictive. By this point we were full, but ordered a fruit platter to clear the seafood smell. Complimentary green tea is given at the end of each meal as well.
From over 40 reviews, Song Ngu averages 4 out of 5 bubbles on TripAdvisor. Reviews praise the excellent seafood, in particular the mantis shrimp. There are few complaints, and even those are minor. People don’t seem to mind the high prices, asserting that the quality of food is worth it.