How lovely it is to revisit a place long ago etched in my heart a wonderful homemade Vietnamese cuisine. For those living in Thailand, you know that we are never short of a Vietnamese fare, whether it is combined into the menu of a local restaurant or standalone on its own serving the famous fresh spring rolls, arrays of pho, nam neung and lemon grass grilled pork with rice vermicelli.
But the Vietnamese food at Xuan Mai – which is a type of Vietnamese spring flower – is different and special. Run by a former FBI agent whose passion lies in cooking, everything here is homemade – from the red sauce served with pho to the minced fresh chilies used to spiced up dishes. And apart from tasting the scrumptious dishes from all over Vietnam in one place, you get a feel of meticulous care on each dish. For example, the presentation of beautifully carved fresh vegetables with vivid colour contrast. Lovely selections of exotic herbs. Baby kaffir limes (for lots of its unique aromatic juice) for the noodles. Indonesian red chili peppers for some extra heat. And it is even better than my memory 8 years ago when I first visited this place while still writing a food column for the Nation newspaper and when the restaurant first started out at Sukhumvit Soi 13.
Ms. Meyung Robson, the former FBI agent who owns and runs this place, hails from the famous resort town of Vung Tau in southern Vietnam. She moved to the US when she was 24, but never stopped cooking. “I found cooking a path into my inner peace,” she says about relishing delicious dishes as a regular relaxation after the onerous days at the bureau. “And I always have a sense of tastes. I can just deconstruct a dish and do it my own way.”
Xuan Mai’s menu brings home those who want to a feast of Vietnamese cuisine. You might come here on your own and savour a bowl of their famous pho – with either beef or chicken – and a plate of spring rolls and get fully satisfied. The pho, which is a northern dish, is aromatic with spices. When added with the side vegetables and herbs, hoisin sauce and homemade red sauce, gives the extra delicious tang. Khun Meyung also serves the beef traditionally in three types – tenderly stewed, thinly sliced and barely cooked and beef balls – in one bowl. You will get the exactly similar pho when you visit northern Vietnam next time around.
But if you are looking for a spicy alternate, you can try Bun Bo Hue which is spicy tender beef and pork noodle soup from central Vietnam (Bt150). With the fragrance of garlic – the ingredient strictly skipped by the northern folks, the rice noodle of this bowl is fatter and softer. It is served with a beautiful basket of fresh mixed vegetables. I love how this place patiently carve pak bung (morning glory) into delicate curls and these fresh things make the bowl crunchy and healthy. Served also with baby kaffir lime and Vietnamese kapi (shrimp paste), this is a satisfying bowl for anyone starving for it comes with loads of chunky stewed beef and pork. If you are not sure about the shrimp paste, give it a quick smell before dumping the thing into the soup. Kapi’s taste is very strong and definitely lingering.
If you are into fish, try their lovely Cha Ca – which is a famous fish dish from Hanoi. Ms. Meyung uses fillets of Thai pla chon, marinates them with herbs and turmeric before stir-frying the deep-fried fillets with mixed herbs and toasted peanuts just before serving. This is a definitely a good choice to share with friends for it is served with rice noodle and fresh vegetables. A meal on its own and a big one, too.
Also, do not miss their very special dishes which are not commonly available in any Vietnamese restaurants in town. Their gorgeous Banh Knot which is mini turmeric pancakes served with shrimp. There are several pieces in a platter and you eat it with the clear sweet and tangy sauce and fresh and pickled vegetables.
Their lovely deep-fried imperial spring rolls are also special. The wrapping paper, made from rice and wheat flour, is very flaky and crispy. It is beautifully accompanied with the clear sauce and carefully selected fresh juicy pineapple. This is a must-try. A diversion of taste from the usual fresh ones we are so familiar with.
When it comes to desserts, Xuan Mai is also full of surprises. Their unique zucchini cake reflects the playful side of the former agent, perhaps, for it is an odd combination of zucchini layered densely with cream cheese and topped with thick syrup. The owner says that this is her imitation of carrot cake. It is worth trying, especially when you think food is a journey and when you like a shot of chilled cinnamon tea served with crunchy bites of Aloe Vera for freshness. Another famous dessert here is their passion fruit creme brulee served in a coconut shell. Aromatic and sweet and a nice touch to the French-inspired Vietnamese cuisine.
Xuan Mai is near Thong Lor Soi 17 (35/13 Sukhumvit 55). If you drive, you will need to find a parking at the nearby mall. They are open everyday, except for Mondays, for lunch and dinner at 11.30-14.30, 18.00-22.00 or 22.30 for Friday to Sunday nights. T: 02-185-2619.