Good things often come in small packages. Take Vietnam Discovery in Bellavista. Barely more than a hole in the wall takeaway, with just one table for those eating in, this tiny restaurant is turning out some of the freshest, tastiest Asian food in the city.
If you’ve never tried Vietnamese cuisine before, you should. Much lighter than Chinese food, more varied than Japanese and generally less spicy than Thai, this is all about finding market-fresh, healthy ingredients and cooking them lightning-fast. Chef, writer, and TV presenter Anthony Bourdain is a huge fan. As he puts it in his article for the Financial Times, “you don’t have to go looking for great food in Vietnam. Great food finds you. It’s everywhere.”
Thanks to French/ Vietnamese couple Thomas Pignal and Thuy-Trinh Dominic Vo, and their Chilean business partner Mario Gonzalez, Vietnam’s great food is now available here too. As other diners shuffled up to make room for us, Pignal welcomed us with wooden bowls of ginger tea and explained how he and his wife had moved here two and a half years ago with the intention of working in tourism. It was only when they tried and failed to find authentic Vietnamese food in the city that the idea of opening a restaurant took shape. “We looked for somewhere in Las Condes at first”, he said, “but Bellavista just fitted better, and here we’re right next to La Vega and the fish market where we buy all our produce.”
Possibly perturbed by my growling stomach, staff and fellow diners shouted out suggestions as we looked at the menu. A group of switched on local office workers refused to leave until we’d promised to try the Nem. We were happy to oblige. Served as a starter, Nem are delicate rolls of batter, crammed with either pork or prawn meat which you wrap in fresh mint and lettuce leaves and dunk in fish sauce at the table. They were divine. We followed these with a small bowl of soup made from a clear stock, beef, vegetables and egg noodles. It wasn’t as tasty as the traditional herb-laden Phò I’d tried on my travels through Vietnam a few years ago, but it was delicious all the same and perfect for a chilly winter’s day.
Our main courses were even better. Bo Xào Rau (aka no. 20) was an aromatic mix of tender beef strips, crispy flash-fried veg and noodles served in just the right amount of soy and oyster sauce. It was out-shone only by the Camaron estilo Cân Tho (similar to Thailand’s national dish — Pad Thai) in which fat, juicy prawns, spring onions, beansprouts, crushed peanuts and lime wedges are piled high on a bed of fragrant Jasmine rice.
Everything was light, cleansing and satisfying; the culinary equivalent of spending the afternoon at a health spa. Supping yet more ginger tea, I asked co-owner and chef, Gonzalez, about Vietnamese food. “The key is using the very best ingredients and never over-cooking them” he said. “The flavours are much more defined than in South American cuisine and they attack the mouth and the nose as much as the stomach.”
Mains range from a very reasonable CP$2,600 – 4,800, while a plate of 12 Nem de Camarón to share will set you back CP$10,500. My only complaint would be that there are currently few options for vegetarians, which is a shame as it is a style of cooking that lends itself well to making the best use of the colours, tastes and textures of natural produce.
As we left, we admired the planned extension into the premises next door, scheduled to open at the end of July 2009. Even when it does, the place will still be small, with seating for just 17 in the new restaurant area (due to open August 2009 and which will be available for private hire).
However, as any honest woman will tell you, size really isn’t everything. And if it’s what you do with it that counts, then Vietnam Discovery are doing just fine.
Loreto 324, Bellavista
Open Monday to Saturday: 11am–11pm
Home Delivery: 11am–9pm (delivery charge depends on where you live; ask for prices when you order).
Staff speak English/Spanish/Vietnamese/German.
Tel: 2 737 20 37
And in Spanish: