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     Volume 4 Issue 55 | July 22 , 2005 |

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A Taste of
Flavour and Chic


If there's one thing you can count on in terms of entertainment in the city, it's having an impressive list of restaurants to choose from. What's more it's not just Chinese, Thai or Indian cuisine that is the logical option but a whole range of exotic grub waiting to titillate your taste buds. From Mexican to Lebanese, residents of this city (of course those in the affluent category) can pretty much taste the food of half the world. The latest in this exotic group is a quaint Vietnamese restaurant that has enough authenticity to make you feel you are right there in downtown Saigon sipping ice tea and sampling intriguing delicacies in an ambience that has a subtle French flavour. Le Saigon on Gulshan Avenue, certainly comes with a full package of original Vietnamese cuisine served in an elegant, tasteful setting.

When you enter the restaurant, the first thing you may notice is the conical roof of the porch, resembling the typical Vietnamese farmer's hat. After being greeted by doormen in grand Vietnamese costume it is a pleasant surprise to be in a room so chic yet so unobtrusive. Cosy booths with colourful wooden partitions dark wood tables surrounded by wooden beams, antique, colonial style ceiling fans, hanging lanterns spreading a golden glow, paintings depicting Vietnamese life and a corner representing a part of an old-fashioned Vietnamese kitchen -- all play their part in creating a unique atmosphere. In tune with current trends two karaoke rooms are reserved for those who want to sing along favourite songs while sharing a meal. While the investors gave their own input in terms of creative ideas, the credit to such detailing goes largely to the restaurant's consultant Iftekhar Ahmed Khan, a successful restaurateur who has done wonders in terms of décor in his own restaurants El Toro, Saltz and formerly Spitfire. Khan travelled with the investors to Vietnam last year and came back with interesting ideas to apply to the restaurant interior.

Soothing jazz tunes waft into the rooms to accompany the delicate fresh spring rolls along with Pho Bo/Ga (Vietnamese beef of chicken), a noodle soup that is the most popular item in Vietnam for breakfast lunch or dinner. For the beef connoisseur there is more to savour -- diced beef in garlic butter, sliced beef slivers in Vietnamese pepper and onions, beef rolls stuffed with pickled onions. These items along with stuffed boneless chicken legs are Franco-Vietnamese based culinary delights that have been treated with a lot of enthusiasm from the clients, according to Farhan Quddus, one of the owners of this charming restaurant. "One of the highlights on the menu is 'Lau', a Vietnamese style Hot Pot soup consisting of clear broth in which fish, seafood, noodles, vegetables, chicken, beef etc can be added" he says. The food can best be described as delicate with tangy surprises to the palate from an interesting combination of spices, herbs and sauces that sets it apart from any other cuisine. To make sure the food would be hundred percent Vietnamese, some of the investors went all the way to Vietnam last year for a rigorous chef selection process.

"We recruited two Hanoi-based chefs and visited top restaurants, took candid pictures and brought back antiques and select artefacts like the hundred year-old ceiling fans", says Quddus. Even the portable stoves and pots and pans have been imported from Vietnam.

The menu in fact involved a lot of research and plenty of tasting sessions adds Quddus. Vietnamese food is distinctively divided into three regions, each with its own style of cooking. Northern Vietnam (Hanoi region) has always been influenced by Chinese cuisine. The Central region (Hue province) explains Quddus, is the 'gastronomical capital' of Vietnam where authentic Vietnamese specialties come from. The Southern Region (Saigon) is more cosmopolitan with Thai and Indian influences. It is also where French cuisine is fused with the local food which is spicier than the other regions. "We took a healthy balance of dishes from all three regions" explains Quddus, "with the help of cookbooks, chef's recommendations and the assistance of Madame Thoa, wife of the current Ambassador of Vietnam who happens to be a fine chef himself. The embassy has been a great critique and guiding light in the menu selection and our chefs have come up with a lot of the dishes on the menu."

Le Saigon is owned by Excalibur Holdings Limited, a private limited company created by six individuals Farhan Quddus, Idris Shakur, Sabbir Rahman, Mosleuddin Mahmood, Fariha Rahman and Kaiser T. Amin. It was Quddus and Shakur who first thought of opening a Vietnamese restaurant after a trip to Vietnam, an idea enthusiastically endorsed by the other investors. The decision was made based on three main thoughts. For one thing this would be the first Vietnamese restaurant in Bangladesh. With its distinctive taste and diverse influences (Chinese, Cambodian, Thai, Mongolian, Malaysian and French) it was bound to appeal to "the adventurous 21st Century cosmopolitan Bangladeshi palate". Plus the investors themselves were big fans of this cuisine, which although little known in this part of the world, is the second most popular food in the US, after Chinese.

So far the response in Dhaka to this new kind of food, has been quite encouraging, says Quddus. "Our patrons have already expressed that they feel they are in 'little Vietnam' when they enter the premises", he remarks. "One patron has called it a 'boutique restaurant'; this we take as a compliment and feel that this embodies the vision behind the creation of our restaurant to be an authentic eatery with an elegant ambience catering to discerning Bangladeshi and expatriate customers."

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