The pan-Southeast Asian eatery cooks up a five-country storm of cuisine. By Lien Hoang. Photos by Fred Wissink.
Typically a restaurant’s tables near the bathroom are the last to be filled, but at Monsoon guests tend to snatch up those spots. Why? They’re upstairs next to a play area where children can colour on the walls and bounce on bean bags, while mom and dad dig into fusion fare.
Well, not exactly fusion. Monsoon brings together the cuisine of five countries, but each dish is distinctly Burmese, Cambodian, Laotian, Thai or Vietnamese. For a tour of all of them, the appetiser platter (VND 250,000) puts on the same plate (in order of the countries listed): tea leaf salad, shrimp cakes, minced pork, corn fritters, and the all-too-familiar spring rolls and eggrolls.
The salad, called lephet thoke with dried shrimp, peanuts, garlic and sesame seeds, really is an acquired taste of earthy fermented leaves, though the legumes compete with a welcome crunch. The minced pork or laap gai, a national dish of Laos and a must-try at Monsoon, is tangy and grainy, if spicy. And as an American, I can’t complain about the Thai fritters (served with sweet vinegar) and juicy Cambodian shrimp cakes (with plum sauce) in all their fried goodness.
Though run by a Thai, Monsoon proselytises food from Burma, as the country opens up, because its original restaurant still is in Rangoon. Hence entrees like mohinga (VND 90,000), another national dish. The rice noodles in rice fish soup resemble pho, but with a stronger flavour of curry and the sea.
Possibly the highlight of the large menu, helpfully divided by country, is the amok trei (VND 100,000) from Cambodia. Anyone who likes coconut even a little must try this steamed curried fish with coconut milk, served as custom dictates in a coconut whose inner walls can be carved to finish out the dish.
You also can get a little experimental with the fruit/vegetable juices (which are made without syrup), or the smoothies (VND 40,000 to 60,000). They blend such strange bedfellows as pineapple and broccoli, or cantaloupe and coconut milk.
Don’t worry, by the way, about the playful children. While they’re upstairs, adults below can dine in peace, lounge on an opium bed or hanging orb chair, or take up some light reading about the five countries, which also are represented in wall decorations. Most are subtle Buddhist figurines or photographs of conical hats, though Monsoon also has printed campy images on its doors.
Beyond food, the restaurant is trying to get active with eclectic initiatives. Through year’s end, it is encouraging customers to reuse its water bottles, by offering free refills. And this month, it is sponsoring an in-house exhibit of paintings by a group of incoming Thai artists.