Sat. Feb 24th, 2024

Simple pleasures hidden in imperial setting

Private palace: Clients can dine in secluded comfort. — Photos Fortuna Hotel

by Elisabeth Rosen

Wandering through the cavernous lobby of the Fortuna Hotel, you think you know where you’re headed.

Like most Japanese restaurants in the capital, Emperor feels designed for moneyed executives – or those who want to pretend they are. There is no common dining room. Seating options are limited to a sushi counter and five private rooms, each equipped with an enormous television. It’s easy to imagine the glossy tables strewn with platters of shimmering sashimi and mayonnaise-topped California rolls: the modern corporate equivalent of the imperial banquet.

Indeed, you can have that experience here, if you choose. Most of the dishes at Emperor hew closely to the archetypal Japanese menu, satisfying the needs of those who seek to impress with massive plates of raw fish. In a sashimi platter for two (VND880,000), imported and domestic catches arrive tossed across wisps of daikon in chilly slabs, in what feels like a concession to expectations as much as an artistic expression.

The sushi, too, is as much about pageantry as flavour, although there is an enjoyable substance to the frenetically decorated dragon roll (VND220,000) and the warm, crab-stuffed spider roll (VND264,000). The service is standout, with servers tiptoeing in discreetly every few minutes to refill your cup with Japanese tea (VND50,000).

But look beyond the luxury-priced sushi, and you’ll discover affordable pleasures like ethereal tempura and tonkotsu miso ramen, a rich pork bone broth tangled with soybean paste and hand-pulled noodles.

Royal refuge: Emperor pulls out all the stops with its palatial decor. The service is also exemplary.


Address: Fortuna Hotel, 6B Lang Ha

Tel.: (84) 43831 ext. 3333

Price Range: VND250,000 – VND700,000

Comment: Handmade Japanese specialties hide among more generic dishes. Ones to try: tonkotsu miso ramen, curry udon

The chef, Kenji Tam, makes nearly everything by hand – from the ribbons of pickled ginger that accompany the sushi to the smooth wheat noodles. It’s a tradition that’s increasingly rare, even in Japan.

Tam was born and raised in Malaysia, but he displays the jovial demeanor of a Japanese television personality. After training in his native country, Tam moved to Tokyo’s bustling Shinjuku district to work as a chef. Every night, he and his colleagues from the Japanese restaurant in the same building cooked dinner for one another. It was there that he learned the basics of Japanese cuisine – and where he developed a burning passion for ramen.

At Emperor, where he took over the reins in May, Tam inherited a menu of standard Japanese crowd-pleasers: sushi, sashimi, tempura, hot pot. These obligatory dishes are still present, but it’s the specials that reveal where Tam’s instincts lie. It’s worth journeying out to Ba D́nh for the ramen alone (VND185,000). Simmered for hours, pork bones and marrow melt into a rich, creamy stock.

The hand-pulled noodles, too, are worthy of praise. Smooth and light, just barely al dente, they wobble through the chili-splashed broth. The dish gets added heft from delicate flecks of pork and boiled eggs puddled with golden yolk. But skip the pickled cabbage that comes with it. Limp and salty, this is one detail that still needs to be ironed out.

Still, it’s nice to know that Tam doesn’t take shortcuts. Even in Japan, curry udon (VND220,000) is frequently made using a pre-made roux. Tam makes his beef stew from scratch, then adds fruit, resulting in a more substantial sauce with hints of sweetness.

Tam has even been experimenting with making his own matcha ice cream. Currently, the consistency issues that come with large-scale production mean that the creamy dessert (VND176,000) still comes from an outside supplier. But one can only hope that the desserts will soon be made from scratch. There’s no doubt that this innovative chef has more tricks up his sleeve. — VNS

By vivian