ONE of my regular food-related whinges, of which there are still many, is the paucity (actually, make that complete absence) of really decent Chinese restaurants in Scotland.
14 South St Andrew Street, Edinburgh (0131-557 3737, wwwsaigonrestaurant.co.uk)
Starters £3.10-£4.60. Main courses £4.70-£16.20
Even Edinburgh, with its smorgasbord of gastronomic influences, ranging from Sudanese to Vietnamese to Argentinian and all points in between, has yet to turn up a genuinely impressive Chinese restaurant.
Chop Chop remains by far the best of a bad bunch, but some of the others are truly dire. A recent nausea-inducing meal at Karen’s Unicorn in Stockbridge ranks among the worst meals I’ve had.
So when I ran into an old acquaintance who eulogised at length about Saigon Saigon, I had to investigate (not least to find out why a Chinese restaurant has a Vietnamese name). His championing of Saigon Saigon was greeted with a reasonable amount of scepticism: gaudy and loud, the restaurant is on the small road between Waverley Station and St Andrew Square and looks like a 24-carat tourist trap.
Appearances can be deceptive, though, and its biggest fan stressed that I would be eating among Chinese diners and tasting the most authentic Chinese cuisine in Edinburgh.
A specialist expedition such as this requires specialist company, so I enlisted the help of an old friend and veteran Hong Kong hand. As well as having an unquenchable interest in food, Jim still travels to Hong Kong regularly and also does some business in China, so is well-placed to pass judgment on Saigon Saigon.
When we arrived, the place was packed full of Chinese people, with the notable exception of one loud pair of Aussies, from Adelaide, who love Chinese food and were eating there for the third day in a row. We were presented with two menus, one à la carte and one for dim sum, and I didn’t need Jim to tell me that most of the dishes on offer were authentic, aimed at Edinburgh’s Chinese community rather than the locals or tourists.
There was, for instance, no sign of the usual Chinese takeaway staples. Instead, the menu was dominated by the sort of stuff you’d need to be feeling particularly feisty to take on: beef tripe, chicken claws, duck claws, black fungus, braised beef tendons, stewed trotter, braised pork bones, duck tongue, frog legs, duck gizzards and pig kidney all featured prominently, complete with suitably grisly images. Just to complete the authenticity, there was even a comedy spelling error, with a picture of an aubergine dish being captioned as aborigine with pork mince.
Jim was a mine of information, especially on what constituted authentic Chinese food. That said, when it came to the starters we both avoided some of the more scary options and went native, kicking off our meal with a selection of deep-fried dim sum. It took a fair old time for our food to start arriving, but once the first plate was plonked on the table it seemed to be a never-ending procession of food.
There was squid cake, deep-fried squid, deep-fried spring rolls, Hanae corn cakes, deep-fried prawn dumplings and sesame prawn rolls; an orgy of squid and, to be honest, a surfeit of food. If there’s one thing that is indisputable about Saigon Saigon, it’s that the size of the portions is extraordinary. If everyone in China ate like this, they would be the largest people on earth.
Yet, according to Jim, the size was the only variation from decent restaurants in China. There were some definite misses, such as the dry-as-dust deep-fried squid and the surprisingly bland spring rolls, but some of the dishes were a revelation, even if we had to wait ten minutes for them to be cool enough to eat. The sesame prawn rolls, which were the size of a baby’s arm and about the same pallor, were jam-packed with prawn, while the dumplings were exquisitely produced. My personal favourite, however, was the corn cakes: stuffed with corn and peas, and deep-fried, they were the best example I’ve ever had.
Our main courses were a little less spectacular. We ordered pork chops in mandarin sweet and sour sauce on rice, plus a plate of beef ho fun and steamed chicken with chilli sauce. Once again the portions were mammoth, and yet again the authenticity was unmistakeable. The pork chops were tender enough but the sauce was unusually understated, even if the rice was perfectly cooked.
The beef ho fun, a dish that is a staple in Guangzhou and Hong Kong, consisted of thin strips of stir-fried beef and the thick, oleaginous ho fun noodles, which are a dirty brown colour and about two inches wide – Jim loved them, I didn’t and instead concentrated on picking out as much beef as possible.
The highlight of the mains was definitely the steamed chicken with chilli sauce, which came smothered in slices of red and (unfeasibly hot) green chillis, and which came on the bone. Tender and totally infused with the flavour of the chillis, this was a dish I would happily order again.
With that, we waddled off into the distance, reflecting on an interesting culinary experience. Authenticity is sometimes a dish best eaten by others, and while Jim and the happy Chinese diners surrounding us loved their meals, several of the dishes in Saigon Saigon would present a challenge to any western palate. And I also know that slow service and dirty glasses aren’t staples of food in any country, any more than monstrously large portions or the sort of outstanding value represented by Saigon Saigon’s prices are necessarily a hallmark of Chinese food.
Nevertheless, this was certainly a dining experience worth having, and a meal to remember.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 6 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: South west