The Cuc Gach Quan Restaurant on Dang Tat street in Ho Chi Minh City has an intimate, relaxing atmosphere that makes customers feel they have been invited to a family friend or neighbor's home for dinner.
And it has received great reviews. In November 2011, this restaurant welcomed American film star Angelina Jolie and her family during their holiday in Vietnam. She wrote in the visitor's book: "Thank you for wonderful lunch, beautiful place, good food. We look forward to next time".
The restaurant lived up to its billing during my first visit.
After entering through a half-open wooden gate that conjures up an image of a secret retreat, our group passed a small garden and walked into the first dining room with sofas, a big flower vase and a soft breeze coming from the garden. A pond reflected lights from the Gieng Troi, a roofless well in the middle of a traditional house where the sunlight can get inside.
As we looked around I felt the "neighbor" who had invited us ws an intellectual and a bon vivant. A bookcase with old and new books as well as ceramic decorations enhanced the cozy atmosphere.
We choose a table with a view of the trees and the red tiled roof of another dining room, this one on the other side of the Gieng Troi. It seemed as though the owners would come in through the door at any time to get a book from the shelf or relax under the trees, breathing in the fresh air.
We, a group of eight including Vietnamese and expats, had been invited to dine at Cuc Gach Quan by a mutual Saigonese friend.
After waiting for about 15 minutes, we were ready to tuck into Gao Luc rice, fried tofu with lemongrass, and fish soup with pineapple. The menu lists a hundred options of southern and northern dishes embellished with the strong flavors of seasonal herbs and fruit.
CUC GACH QUAN
10 Dang Tat street, district 1, Ho Chi Minh city
92B Thach Thi Thanh street, district 1, Ho Chi Minh city
The food is served in the sort of bowls that were mass-produced in my parents' day, so I felt a sense of déjà vu.
The highlight of our lunch was a combination of pumpkin and other vegetables stir-fried with garlic.
But everyone was happy with every dish and ate with relish. Such a good meal was surprisingly inexpensive, at around VND150,000 per person.
After a satisfying first visit, we returned to Cuc Gach Quan several times, choosing one of the two rooms depending on our mood. The other room has a wooden floor and sloping roof and bears a vague resemblance to a mountain retreat.
The restaurant also has a stylish nook for chatting with friends and sipping tea after dinner.
It is not surprising that Cuc Gach Quan has become a trendy place where food, architecture and ambience bring people from different cultures together.