Ho Chi Minh City
Tasting Date: Aug. 19
1. Pullman Danang Beach Resort 2. Sofitel Saigon Plaza 3. Shang Palace 4. Renaissance Riverside Hotel 5. Hotel Equatorial
Chris Donnellan, chef at Shri
Kylie Cawood, creative force behind soon-to-open Lu Bu
Jim Cawood, owner of Vino
Bao Ross, mooncake connoisseur
Sofitel Saigon Plaza
Renaissance Riverside Hotel
Pullman Danang Beach Resort
To listen to the judges we’ve assembled, mooncake is an acquired taste, one acquirable only through careful childhood inculcation. All our judges have mooncake experience, but only one feels much affection for them. “But Bao doesn’t like them any more, not since she’s grown up,” says Kylie with a laugh.
Mooncakes are blessings, traditions, things that come in beautiful boxes pretty good at holding tea bags after the fact. At 700 to 1,000 calories in your average mooncake, they almost beg you not to eat them.
Today’s mission, then. We’ve brought together the city’s finest, most giftable mooncakes, cut them up into upside-down quarter-slices and marked them with anonymity-preserving numbers. It’s the eve of mooncake season, and millions of mooncakes will soon be taking up fridge space. Can we find the mooncakes to convince this group of foodies they’re not just high-priced doorstops?
All scores are out of five.
What: ‘Green Bean’ at Pullman Danang Beach Resort
Why: Only one judge rated this mooncake highly, but Bao rated this her favourite — as the only judge historically disposed to the taste.
What the judges said: Bao said, “The filling is so different compared to other normal mooncakes. So nice!” The others said “dry”, “bland”, “egg not salty”.
Scoring average: Crust — 2 // Filling — 2.25 // Tastiness — 2 // Creativity — 1.5
Bao’s score sheet: Crust — 4 // Filling — 4 // Tastiness — 5 // Creativity — 5
The Napoleon Complex
What: ‘Pandan Mung Bean Paste’ at Shang Palace
Why: Like Rocky Marciano this bruiser punches above his weight, to a consensus win in the first plating of five.
What the judges said: They picked up a hint of “vanilla”, infusing the “light pastry” with an “aromatic” quality. It was “really tasty, moist, the best on plate one”.
Scoring average: Crust — 3.5 // Filling — 4 // Tastiness — 4 // Creativity — 3.75
The details: VND595,000+ for a box of eight, four baked, four frozen. Call (08) 3823 2221 for more information.
What: ‘Tiramisu 1 Yolk’ at Hotel Equatorial
Why: She mixes it up — a little bit espresso and a little bit ca phe sua da. In a field full of traditionalists, she gives the holidays a well-travelled flair.
What our judges said: “It tastes like airline coffee” or “my daily ca phe sua da”. When pressed, Kylie said, “They’ll probably say something like ‘tiramisu’.” Ignoring the controversy, Bao felt it “tastes good, cool!”
Score average: Crust — 2.75 // Filling — 2.25 // Tastiness — 2.5 // Creativity — 1.75
The Flower Child
What: ‘Green Tea’ at Renaissance Riverside Hotel
Why: It made the judges pursue additional nibbles in search of its elusive, “peachy” flavour, 13 rounds and hundreds of calories into the competition.
What our judges said: It hit that judge-pleasing sweet spot of “not too sweet, not too heavy”, inspiring descriptions like “floral” and “aromatic”. Three of four judges wrote the uncommon mooncake attribute “peach” on their score sheets.
Score average: Crust — 3.25 // Filling — 3.75 // Tastiness — 4.25 // Creativity — 3.75
The Sweet Tooth
What: ‘Pure Lotus Double Yolk’ at Sofitel Saigon Plaza
Why: Sometimes you just need to pack in the sugar for the holiday season, and Sofitel’s offering does it with a nice, honeyed touch.
What the judges said: They talked about the “nice crust” and the “not dry” qualities. Two of the more enthusiastic panelists noted that the “caramel honey flavour is good”.
Scoring average: Crust — 3 // Filling — 2.5 // Tastiness — 2.75 // Creativity — 2.5
1. Renaissance Riverside Hotel
2. Sofitel Saigon Plaza
3. Shang Palace
4. Hotel Equatorial
Tasting Date: Aug. 20
1. Hilton Hanoi Opera 2. Intercontinental Hanoi Westlake 3. Crowne Plaza West Hanoi 4. Sheraton Hanoi 5. Mövenpick Hotel
Tracey Lister, director of Hanoi Cooking Centre
Duyen Pham, chef at Hanoi Cooking Centre
Nguyen Qui Duc, owner of Tadioto
Thao Nguyen, general manager of Pots ’n Pans
Son Nguyen, sales and marketing manager of Press Club
Intercontinental Hanoi Westlake
Hilton Hanoi Opera
Looking at the names on the Hanoi judge list, one might rightly assume a higher proportion of mooncake traditionalists than in the southern tasting. They represent the new guard of Hanoi culinary traditions, but they know a good mooncake when they see one. And they saw quite a few on this particular day.
All scores are out of five.
The Magical Field
What: ‘Green Tea, Mung Bean, 1 Yolk’ at Hilton Hanoi Opera
Why: Balance makes perfection. The bitterness of the green tea is nicely balanced by the sweetness and smoothness of the mung bean paste.
What our judges said: All agreed on its “smooth texture”. But they had differences of opinion on the crust. Tracey said it was a little chewy but Son loved it. “Nice crust with a good amount of salted egg,” he declared.
Score average: Crust — 3.8 // Filling — 3.1 // Tastiness — 3.1 // Creativity — 3.5
The Princess of the Forest
What: ‘Chestnut’ at Crowne Plaza
Why: It’s an elegant piece of art, with a fine crust, beautiful colour, good texture and a smooth filling.
What our judges said: “Best one in the round!” with a “light feeling” and “balanced taste”.
Score average: Crust — 3.5 // Filling — 3.7 // Tastiness — 3.9 // Creativity — 3.4
What: ‘Mixed Nut’ at Sheraton Hanoi
Why: Taste it to get close to the traditional mooncake of Vietnam — banh nuong thap cam (‘10 different flavour-baked mooncake’). Its name says it all. Get ready to indulge yourself with a variety of nuts including melon seeds, walnuts, almonds, white sesame and more.
What our judges said: “Moist crust, filling not too sweet,” said one, and the others agreed. “The flavour gets close to the traditional moon cake”, but one with a “rich texture”.
Score average: Crust — 3.8 // Filling — 3.5 // Tastiness — 3.6 // Creativity — 3.3
The details: Boxes of six start at VND750,000 net. Call (04) 3719 9000 to order.
Song of the Countryside
What: ‘Pandan Leaf with Lotus Nuts’ at Intercontinental Hanoi Westlake
Why: The fresh scent of the pandan leaf from this cake can satisfy anyone who has a nostalgia for the countryside. The taste is familiar but exotic at the same time. The beautiful green colour of the filling is wrapped inside the perfect golden baked crust. Lotus seeds in the filling finish this masterpiece.
What our judges said: “Fabulous look!” said Duc. Thao added, “And a nice surprising aftertaste” with “subtle flavour”.
Score average: Crust — 3.8 // Filling — 4.1 // Tastiness — 4.0 // Creativity — 4.1
The Power of Creativity
What: ‘Tiramisu’ at Mövenpick
Why: Its lovely coffee taste. It’s a wonderful twist of the Italian recipe with the original feeling of mooncakes. And it got the maximum creativity scores from three of our judges.
What our judges said: “It’s the feeling of tiramisu, but not totally it,” said Duc. “And that’s the awesome creativity that I love.” But Son said, “Too sweet for me!” while Tracey concluded, “I like the mung bean filling better.”
Score average: Crust — 3.8 // Filling — 4.1 // Tastiness — 4.1 // Creativity — 4.6
1. Hilton Hanoi Opera
2. Intercontinental Hanoi Westlake
3. Sheraton Hanoi
4. Mövenpick Hanoi
Special thanks to Bluebird (Hanoi) and Vino 2 (Ho Chi Minh City) for letting us use their premises for our two tastings