KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 18 — From a distance, they resemble overturned mushroom caps gleaming like vintage coins.
The golden colour comes from the use of turmeric in the batter of rice flour and cornstarch, mixed with water and coconut milk.
Topped with shrimp and green onions, every mouthful reveals the unseen umami of minced dried salted shrimp.
Some raw vegetables — coral lettuce, butter lettuce and perilla leaves — act as a refreshing palate cleanser between bites.
This is a beautiful serving of Bánh Khọt or Vietnamese mini savoury pancakes.
A common starter at many Vietnamese dining tables, my friend Chai assures me. (He ought to know, having spent months, on and off, in Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang over the past few years, even before the pandemic.)
Yet we are not in Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon, as Chai is used to calling the most populous city in Vietnam, after its original name) but Pantai Dalam in KL. Specifically we are in the basement of the South Link residences here, looking for lunch.
It says a lot about the versatility of South-east Asian shopping malls and food courts, that even amidst the sprawl of chain restaurants and franchise boba tea kiosks, one can still find a hidden gem or two.
In our case, we quite nearly walked past the entrance of An Nam Lush, given its below the radar location at the end of a corridor between rows of showier shops with louder signages.
This subdued ambience continues inside: An Nam Lush has a classy, black-and-white décor with azure accents.
One feature wall is filled with sepia-hued prints of historical Vietnam, from a map of Hanoi to a rickshaw puller waiting for his next customer.
Despite it being a weekend, there is only one other occupied table: a sole diner tucking into a steaming bowl of phở, that classic rice noodle dish.
This doesn’t deter us; the proof is in the pudding, after all. (Or phở, as it were, given how focused the other diner is on his meal.) Perhaps this restaurant is a fantastic find just waiting to be discovered.
We begin with Vietnamese coffee, naturally. (When in Rome, do as the Romans do. And when in Saigon or Hanoi...) One of us opts for the Vietnamese drip coffee, a study in patience, and the other an iced Vietnamese coffee, for a quick fix.
Both hit the spot and are perfect accompaniments to the aforementioned Bánh Khọt, the milky-sweet caffeine balancing the mildly pungent notes of the tiny pancakes’ dried salted shrimps.
Of course, you simply cannot visit an authentic Vietnamese restaurant without sampling their banh mi, assuming they have that on their menu. Fortunately for us, An Nam Lush not only has one but three different variations.
Our favourite of the trio is the Bánh Mỳ Thịt Nướng or banh mi with charcoal grilled pork. Tucked into a crunchy, perfectly baked Vietnamese baguette with sliced cucumber, fresh coriander, laksa leaves, pickles, pâté, shredded onion and lemongrass ground pork, this is a textural triumph.
Bánh Mỳ An Nam is a hodgepodge of culinary influences with Vietnamese ham and beef bolognese while Bánh Mỳ Bò Lá Lốt features grilled betel leaf wrapped beef.
Though our neighbour’s phở looked enticing, we decide on a noodle dish that we rarely see at other Vietnamese restaurants in the Klang Valley.
At first glance, the Mỳ Quảng (or Quảng style chicken noodles from Quảng Nam Province in central Vietnam) appears to be a close cousin of khao soi, another yellow-hued chicken noodle soup hailing from northern Thailand.
Mỳ Quảng is not as cloying with rich coconut milk, however, making it easier on more delicate palates. Utterly colourful with yellow rice noodles, stewed chicken, quail eggs, shrimps and peanuts.
Full of fibre too, thanks to the cabbage, lettuce and mint leaves. Topped with a rice cracker studded with black sesame seeds, this bowl would rival any from a reputable ramen shop.
(And just like a proper ramen-ya with an open kitchen, you can take a peek inside the kitchen at An Nam Lush too, through a discreet square window doubling as the pass.)
To complete our meal, we couldn’t resist a serving of Thịt Kho Tàu or Vietnamese caramelised pork belly and egg. Fans of hóngshāo ròu (its Chinese cousin, if you like) will find much to admire: the sweet glaze coating every chunk of meat, with a little heat from sliced chillies.
There are other dishes we are intrigued by and can’t wait to return to try: Thịt Luộc Chấm Mắm Tép (Vietnamese pickled shrimps with boiled pork belly), Nộm Ngó Sen Tôm Thịt (lotus root salad with pork belly and prawn) and Sườn Heo Ướp Mắm Sả (fried lemongrass pork ribs).
Until our next visit, we depart with full bellies and visions of Vietnam... or at least a Vietnamese feast.
An Nam Lush
Unit B1-06A, Basement 1, South Link, Pantai Dalam, KL
Open daily 10am-10pm
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