A classy chain of Vietnamese restaurants that show rice can be more than a side dish. By Ruben Luong. Photos by Lee Starnes.

A trifecta of Gao restaurants has opened in Ho Chi Minh City, consisting of Gao Mon Ngon, Gao Hai San, and Gao Buffet. Visiting the former, it’s as if we’ve sauntered through Vietnam’s fog-enshrouded mountains, ancient bridges and paddy fields to get here.

Architecture resembling Vietnamese palaces and old quarters is given a modern touch. Crystal chandeliers dangle next to vases containing birds of paradise, and lantern orbs form an enchanting canopy near wooden tables crowned in Vietnamese ceramics. Gao is Vietnamese for “uncooked rice”. At Gao Mon Ngon, the all-encompassing menu features four varieties of the staple crop to celebrate the heritage of Vietnam. More than five pages display artfully prepared vegetarian dishes such as oyster mushroom rolls (VND 65,000), seafood plates such as crab roasted with tamarind (VND 420,000), or exotic hotpots such as eel with banana flower (VND 350,000).

Huyet rong rice (VND 35,000) is named after dragon’s blood, which this rice resembles with its distinctive plum and red-brown colouring. It had a sweet fragrance in its bamboo vessel. Sourced from Dong Thap province in the Mekong Delta, the rice was soft and chewy. We tried it with morning glory (VND 55,000), which was sautéed with bits of pungent garlic cloves to bring out the plant’s flavour.

The lightness of the huyet rong and morning glory primed our palates for crab fried rice (VND 295,000). The dish came with a boiled crab atop a hill of white rice tossed with chunks of scrambled egg, green onions, carrots, and crabmeat. The crabmeat inside the claws was fresh and not overly briny. The fried rice was also generous, making every bite consistent and enjoyable.  Our last dish was the dwarf snakehead fish simmered in fish sauce (VND 95,000), cooked in a claypot that kept it lukewarm and savoury. The citrus of lemongrass enhanced full-bodied red chilli, while a stem of healthy green pepper corns added an interesting textural element to the dish.

The caramelisation of the tender snakehead fish was rich and filling.  Gao Mon Ngon’s dishes are memorable, and its clientele is, too. Gao is a chain belonging to renowned traditional Vietnamese dancer Linh Nga. Naturally, the restaurant is a haunt for other famous Vietnamese actors and models, who may be dining in the corner VIP room.

Gao Mon Ngon Vietnamese Restaurant
33 Le Quy Don, D3
7am-11pm, seven days
08 39 32 66 32