Roof tile never tasted so good

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In a style of Da Lat in the Central Highlands, a restaurant in downtown Ho Chi Minh City serves grilled dishes that are cooked, not the normal way on a metal grill, but on a piece of ngói (clay roof tile).

The name of the three-story restaurant, gotten from what it serves, is simply Ngoi.

My latest foray there was to the rooftop grill, where my friends and I had a great time dining under the evening sky in the warmth from the stove and the cool air of the breeze. The only light came from three lamp posts standing between the two lines of wooden tables, just like the streets of Da Lat.

The grilling choice was beef, pork, deer, octopus, chicken's innards, pig's bowel, or a few other animal bits, each cooked with a different mixture of spices.

It was VND78,000 for a small serving and VND98,000 for a large one. Not wanting to fill ourselves to bursting, we decided on three small portions to share.

Then came the best part.

A piece of roof tile was put on the clay brazier, tilted slightly to allow the cooking oil to flow down into the large pan below rather than get trapped in the hollow of the tile.

The main advantage of using a tile rather than a metal grill is that the meat doesn't come into direct contact with the flames so it's less likely to get overly crisp around the edges or downright charred.

Seeing the oil ladled onto the meat and running off into the pan whetted our appetite and added to the anticipation of a fine meal coming up.

I thought it would take some time to cook our beef and chicken organs and was pleasantly surprised when it arrived in short order, accompanied by a mouthwatering aroma.

The meat was tender and spicy in the best possible way, and made a satisfying impression on our palates.

Besides grilled meat, Ngoi offers hotpot, fish and shrimp grilled the traditional way, and a few specials such as baked fermented pork roll and fried tofu with milk.

The fermented pork roll is served in a mẹt (flat round bamboo basket) along with rice sheets and raw vegetables. The idea is to roll the pork and vegetables in the rice sheets and eat them with the hand.

The fried tofu with milk is a house specialty at the restaurant. Its cover is crunchy while the part inside, containing milk cooked with tofu, is gooey and greasy, and a bit sweet.

Ngoi's second floor is a closed room named Tra Khum, a sort of café with music, and obviously unsuitable for grilled food.

 Ngoi Restaurant

245/23 Nguyen Trai Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City 

Tra Khum is decorated in Middle-East style with wall hangings, rugs and soft lighting. Sitting in the low purple sofa chairs is a comfortable way to sip tea and listen to the modern music they play there.

I can highly recommend Tra Khum's lemongrass tea, which we found to be perfect for our full bellies after the grill upstairs.

The restaurant's ground floor is packed with tables and chairs and equipped with electric fans and air-conditioning to prevent the room when crowded from becoming too hot and sticky. It's cosy for some but inappropriate for those who like airy spaces.

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