Adventures in Ho Cho Minh City

Soufflés in Saigon

So…I’m sitting in the back of another diminutive taxi cab in downtown Ho Chi Minh city when it occurs to me that this isn’t the way that I want to go out. In my mind, I’m running through all the bad scenarios that await me. My impending doom…

First, unbeknownst to be, I’ll be driven to some remote part of town. Then, I’ll be relieved of my belongings, roughed up and left to rot in an alley which, due to the extreme over-population and incredible heat and humidity, bears a stench with a pungency you can scarcely fathom.

But suddenly, my eternal optimist rears its adorable little head. I’m a good guy. Good things happen to good people. Jesus loves me. Never mind the fact that no less than 5 times since I arrived 3 days ago, a local has attempted to get over on me. Have faith, I tell myself. Who cares that neither the cab driver, nor the bell captain at my hotel were able to figure out the restaurant that I was trying to go to, despite the concierge’s best efforts to explain it to them. I’m not at all encouraged by the fact that the two of them have agreed on a suitable alternative for me (sans my approval)and my yearning for French cuisine.

As we sift through the shear madness that is Saigon’s constant brigade of motorized bicycles, (chaos does not begin to explain it), I lay my head back on the headrest and sigh (two peas in a bucket, que se ra..se ra…well, you get the picture…). Jesus loves me, I say again, under my breath.

Then, like a train reaching light at the end of a tunnel, daybreak to a wino slumbering on a park bench, title-hopes dashed and a season ended at the hands of some Florida Gators…SUDDENLY…we pulled up to the gated fortress that was Au Manoir de Khai.

Quickly, I wiped off the gas-face that had formed during this excursion, and gleefully accepted the warm welcome given me by the doormen at this, at first glance, incredibly grand dining compound. Indeed, trial and success (save for marriage) continues to reign supreme in this charmed life that I lead. I proceed to follow the maitre’d past a fountain, through a garden, a very regal sitting room, up some stairs and, finally, to the seat where I would bear witness to evidence of divine presence…at least culinarily speaking.

Perhaps I wasn’t meant to find the other place at all. Surely, it would have been the letdown to end all letdowns compared to this place. The decor of the dimly -lit room would have set both Marie Antoinette or Louis XVI at ease. Elegantly lain across my table was a red and gold striped ribbon, a vase full of tulips, and a candlestick holder (surely there’s a sexier, more sophisticated term for that) so ornate in its golden-braided magnificence that I grew more and more apprehensive by the minute at the notion of sullying this heavenly portrait of a place setting.

My waiter/sommolier (picture Theo, of 92 the Beat/Waiting to Exhale fame on crack) brought me the velvet jacketed menu and accompanying wine list. I tried to play it cool…act as if I’d been there before, but every fabric of my being wanted to ring out with alacrity, exclaiming my extreme delight in the fact that there were neither packets of sweet n’ low , nor plastic salt and pepper shakers atop a red-checkered table cloth in front of me. In no time at all, I had not only selected hors d’oevres, a main course, and dessert, but a suitable libation (Hedge Lane, a 2004 Shiraz from Australia) to wash it all down. If I wasn’t such a proud, world-renowned (I’m a legend in my own mind…so shoot me!) “foodie”, I might have wallowed in self-pity about being without some female company on this glorious occasion.

As the signature cut from my favorite Miles Davis classic album so emphatically claims…SO WHAT! This dining experience would prove to be too exquisite to even trifle about such mundane matters as companionship and dinner conversation. Surely, my very satisfied expressions were not lost on the handful of other patrons in the vicinity, nor the very attentive wait staff. (I caught Theo shaking his head at me more than a few times….)

What’s more, the entire experience bordered on the sublime. Not only was my table decorated to a precision that would make both Martha Stewart and the Queer Eye guys proud, but the impressionist art on the walls (still life’s are impressionist, aren’t they?) and the very choice musical selection created just the right ambience. Something about harpsichord music that just speaks of refinement and elegance. I think it was Mozart. Yeah…The Life and Times of W. (dot) Amadeus, Vol. 1…The remixes.

I polished off the first course as 22 Etudes rang out from the speakers. (Okay, okay… it didn’t ring out…politely played, at a volume consistent with tunes in an elevator would be a more accurate description). “Can’t Knock the Waltz” got me through course number two. Without a doubt, the Source would’ve given this one a 5-mic rating in its day (back when 5 mics used to mean something). As the Grand Marnier Soufflé was dropped in front of me, Ave Maria sent me into a Tom Hanks moment (Philadelphia, dawg…the operatic arias?…keep up!), as I reminisced on a childhood of playing classical music on the piano in my parent’s living room.

As I finished the soufflé, I found myself staring at the painting on the wall in front of me, as if I were at the Louvre, and Jacques Sauniere himself were lauding the complexities of the wilted roses and sunflowers as well as the music box monkey that lurked in the background of this very busy oil painting. Clearly, the Shiraz was having its way with me at this point.

Destah Owens is a single father of two from Northern California and proud UCLA Bruin who travels the world for his job as a computer engineer. His blog “Souffles in Saigon” is exclusive to Urban Thought Collective.