The Fairmont Nile City’s Saigon Restaurant & Lounge has become synonymous with everything you imagine a ‘lounge’ to be; live jazz, plush furnishings and elaborate décor. But beyond the glitz of the lounge, Saigon’s restaurant area is where the real magic happens.
On the surface, the large dining area seems unfinished; there are two areas, both of which bear little resemblance to each other. While one uses wood-flooring and reds and blacks in the furniture, the other looks like some sort of colonial club house; wicker chairs sit along a beige and brown carpet, both of which seem out of place against the faint, sky blue sections of the walls and pillars.
But this is just a side-note to what is a master class of Asian fusion. The first page of the menu tempts diners with a selection of salads, each more intriguing than the other. But one dish outshines all; the glass noodle and grilled quail salad (59LE) captures Saigon’s culinary approach to a tee in combining classic Asian ingredients with acutely un-Asian touches. You’d think that the perfectly-cooked, subtly seasoned, nugget-sized quail pieces would be the star of the show, but what really brings the salad together is the mysterious dressing. In fact, to call it a dressing would do it a disservice – it’s closer to a cold broth that, after absorbing the freshness and flavours of the julienned carrots, slices of chilli, celery and coriander, tastes like a sharp gazpacho that still very much rings of Asian cuisine. It made for the perfect accompaniment to the glass noodles, even if the additional shitake mushrooms were over-powered.
Veal is often mistreated in many a Cairo kitchen, but Saigon’s pan seared veal chop dish (159LE) is built around an eclectic range of flavours. Served with slices of sautéed apple, carrots and young pepper jus, as well as a superfluous crusted log of mashed potato, the dish is treated with a delicacy and subtlety that are seldom seen with meat dishes around the city. Although the jus was a little heavy, the sharp pop of pepper corns played off of the flavour to the veal perfectly. Said veal was served generously in two large chops and it was cooked perfectly to the requested medium. The only thing that kept this from being the perfect dish was the apple; all but one of the slices were extremely bitter, but the one slice that did fare well created an outstanding combination with the veal.
Saigon’s seafood options appear minimal at first, but across individual and sharer dishes, the menu offers a well-thought out selection that covers all bases. Like the veal chops, the large pan-fried scallops (168LE) are generous in serving and, more importantly, in flavour. Prepared with lemon grass and mild chilli, the scallops were cooked and flavoured well, with the subtle flavours of said lemon grass and chilli giving them that little Asian kick. The dish comes served with asparagus and chanterelle mushrooms, the former of which were unfortunately under-seasoned and devoid of enough flavour to stand up to the potency of the scallops. The chanterelles faired better and when combined with the scallops and the drizzle of the lemon grass and chilli-infused moisture, made for a perfect bite.
When confronted with such a great meal, it’s tempting not to opt for dessert – the risk of ending on a bad note can be too much to bear. But Saigon’s astounding flavour combinations extend to their dessert menu. The sago coconut milk dessert (40LE) is picture perfect; a bowl holds sago pearls swimming in a delicious, light serving of coconut milk. Floating on top is a gargantuan crispy tuile. The textures of the combined elements are nothing short of a marvel, particularly the sago pearls – a starch extracted from the pith of tropical trees – which are similar to tapioca pearls.
Despite a couple of faux-pas moments with our well-meaning waiter and a lounge version of Leona Lewis’ ‘Keep Bleeding’ being played on repeat for the entire meal, there was little to detract from what was an outstanding meal, top to bottom. The lounge is where the masses may flock, but it’s the restaurant that gives Saigon its soul.