There used to be a “build it and they will come” attitude in this city — just having the bricks, mortar, space and location was deemed enough to suck in the undiscerning punter. But as this latest culinary journey has demonstrated, except for in The Pham, where tourists come once, eat, spend their dollars and never return, most of the other eateries coming to Saigon have been put together with thought, passion and a surprising amount of care. It’s a transformation that bodes well.
The following is a rundown of what’s out there:
Scott & Binh's
Bizu Hotel, 15-17 Cao Trieu Phat, Hung Phuoc 1, Q7
If you know Scott Marquis you will know that Binh is the owner of Bizu Hotel, where the restaurant is located. You’ll also know two other things about him — his passion for good cuisine and his principles.
He describes his cuisine as “comfort food with a twist”. Opened several months, this Saigon South restaurant is full almost every night.
That this eatery has done so well is as much to do with the creativity of the cuisine — international but with a Vietnamese twist — as it is to do with the setting. A leafy but shaded patio area out front with wooden garden furniture is complemented by an indoor, aircon dining space with purple velvet upholstered seating, low lighting and brown woods. It’s an attractive space.
“I try to use as many Vietnamese ingredients as possible,” explains Scott as I tuck into the surprisingly juicy, Pulp Fiction-esque Royale with Cheese. “I order the patties especially for this burger — it’s made with local beef. You’d never know.” He’s correct, you wouldn’t. It’s one of the best I’ve had in this city. The pulled pork is tasty, too.
Main courses run between VND100,000 and VND150,000.
El Gato Negro
182A Pasteur, Q1
Geoffrey Deetz, responsible for Black Cat, probably the city’s best-known burger restaurant, and also behind many another restaurant venture in this country, is now back in Saigon following a hiatus in Hanoi with his latest offering, the burrito joint El Gato Negro.
El Gato Negro may only be a small, hole-in-the-wall style takeaway joint — the kind of place you pop in for that dose of comfort food — but with an efficient delivery service to back it up, the cuisine here is something to talk about.
The key, of course is, the burritos. Besides being onehelluva mouthful — these foil-wrapped mothers are huge — the variety available is startling. From the grilled lime chicken (VND155,000) through to the huevos rancheros (VND150,000), the carnitas fried pork and the Baja shrimp, it seems that every taste and palate is catered for. And it doesn’t stop there. A range of quesadillas (from VND70,000) make up the menu as well as recently added specials such as the tortilla soup (VND90,000). Oh, and then there are the home pickled jalapenos and a formidable selection of chilli sauces on the side.
We’ve even got a delivery phone number for you — 6660 1577.
40A Bui Vien, Q1
Some additions to the dining scene are worth shouting about, others are a little less well thought out. At least in some respects. Take the recently opened La Casa on Bui Vien. With its quite phenomenal open air, corner location, so much is correct here — the terracotta-tiled terrace, the mosaic table tops, the Tex-Mex cartoon-like Spanish theme and the Spaghetti Western costumes of the waiting staff. But boasting a menu whose first dish is an all day Irish breakfast — not exactly a Hispanic staple — is foreboding.
Key, as ever, is the cuisine. In a restaurant that seems to put as much thought in its Vietnamese noodle soup, pizza, pasta and “bugers” as it does in its chimichangas, burritos and tacos, you’re never going to get top notch. The beef burrito (VND99,000) explained to me why, except for some notable exceptions, you shouldn’t eat in The Pham. Taste-wise it was fine, but the meat, vegetables, salsa and beans were given short thrift, making this into no more than beef fried rice wrapped in a soft taco.
If you’re going to eat somewhere like La Casa, you’re trading off price and location for quality.
Berru Restaurant & Coffee Shop
264 Tran Nao, Q2, Tel: 0932 467798
Restaurants from unusual, exotic climes opening in strange, slightly decentralised locations seems to be a theme in this city, and the Turkish-run Berru is the latest of this ilk. Located just off the ‘soon to be redeveloped’ section of District 2, and on the wrong side of An Phu, this sleepy, family-run eatery is set in a leafy, shaded courtyard with an open-air, fan-cooled dining area and a long, rock covered water feature.
The cuisine, while lacking many of the ingredients so readily available in Turkey, remains surprisingly authentic. No attempt has been made to adapt it to local or European tastes. Instead the chefs here have made do with what is available in this city and taken it from there. It’s not perfect but it works. And the flavours typical of this cuisine shine through. From the fatty but tasty borek — a typical Turkish breakfast dish found all over Istanbul — through to a range of doners, kofte, shish (called sis on the menu here), durum wraps and Turkish-style, yoghurt-based salads, mains go for between VND80,000 and VND150,000. Portions are big, too.
3/5 Hoang Sa, Q1
“When I first came back to Vietnam in 2007, I could find the dishes but not the taste,” says French restaurateur, Thai Tu Tho. Born to a Vietnamese father and French-Italian mother, she grew up on home-cooked Vietnamese cuisine.
May, meaning cloud in English, is decorated with the Indochine panache of the early 20th century. It’s spacious, using both pastel and darker shades of blue together with dark brown to create its ambience. Such is the determination to get it right that Tu Tho’s father flew in from France to train all the staff.
Set in the unlikeliest of areas — a villa just off the working class apartment blocks — all the cuisine here is MSG-free. Likewise, all the sauces and master broths are homemade, without the use of bouillon or stock cubes.
Other aspects that make May unique include the rice. Coming only from a particular farm, Tu Tho has bought the stock for the whole year.
The key, though, is the cuisine and Tu Tho points to a few dishes as the restaurant’s specialities — the cha gio (spring rolls), which are made from a recipe popular in the 1940s, the home-made tofu and the French-style, pan-fried duck breast served with nuoc mam and ginger.
One of the more interesting additions to the dining scene, May has the potential to be a real hit. Prices are reasonable, too.
15 Dong Du, Q1
The experience of creating and running Zero has been a learning curve for Stephen McGrath and his wife Leanne. When they first opened the non-smoking, two-storey restaurant at the turn of the New Year, they were new to the industry. They were also plying the trade with an unknown chef.
Yet, return a few months on and you find a restaurant that is now in its stride and has settled into its own little niche. The original head chef lasted a month, and yet the present man at the helm, Phong, was there from day one. Zero is doing well.
“We're constantly looking for that dish that people are missing,” says Stephen. For example, we’re doing baked potatoes with a Bolognese sauce and melted cheese in the oven. Nowhere else in town seems to do this and the customers love it.”
From our little trip town to Zero, we went for the Ploughman’s lunch (VND225,000), a real treat. And then we got our chops into the signature tasting plate (VND249,000). Containing eight different dishes including Australian steak bites, passion fruit 'n honey wings, prawns wrapped in bacon, pork ribs, and mango and prawn salad, this expresses what Zero does well — international-style comfort food with that little Vietnamese twist.
As well as a good value three-course set lunch for VND185,000, Wednesday nights and Sunday afternoons are home to live music, with the set alternating between jazz and rock.
26th & 27th Floor, AB Tower, 76A Le Lai, Q1
Chill is new but not that new. The award-winning bar and restaurant has been wooing punters with its 26th-floor views, lavish décor and pricey drinks for well over six months, now. The reason for its inclusion here is its restaurant, which has just undergone a makeover.
The change in concept is partly a result of moving the restaurant upstairs, a setting described as more “intimate”. More importantly is the arrival of two new chefs — American head chef Gabriel Boyer and Danish sous chef Casper Gustafsen. Together they’ve torn apart the menu and started again. The issue, it seems, is that the previous chef “was putting 1,000 things on the same plate”.
“All we’ve done is simplify the dishes,” says Casper. “My style is very Nordic-influenced, with a clean taste and a clean look, while Gabriel’s is North American contemporary cuisine. We’re mixing the two.”
A quick taste of the pan roasted black cod with capers, olive, lemon and Dalat artichoke heart (VND580,000), and you can see what he means. The contrasting flavours here are subtle but blend effortlessly — the overall taste is typical of much of the contemporary, fine-dining fare you would find in Northern Europe. This is not rocket science or culinary chemistry. This is a simple dish done well. And then there’s the wagyu burger off the snack menu.
“The menu’s been well-received,” adds Casper. “We're changing it constantly, trying to make new things”.
29 Ngo Thoi Nhiem, Q3
Take every garish, highlighter colour under the sun, put it together to create something tasteful, and you have the open-air Khoi Thom, a restaurant in the fusing Mexican and Vietnamese cuisine.
The eye-catching décor —apparently it’s inspired by the work of Ricardo Legorreta, a renowned Mexican architect who combined the vibrant colours of his country with modernism. Such a combination, it seems, has been extended to Khoi Thom’s cuisine.
“We’re trying to introduce Mexican food and drink to the Vietnamese while making it accessible for foreigners,” explains restaurant manager Dany Sou as he runs us through the menu.
The Mexican-style muc nuong (barbecued squid), for example, is cooked with lemongrass, as are the beef skewers, while the BBQ fish and prawns are marinated in tequila. The BBQ sausage they use is the sweet, Vietnamese-style sausage. Likewise the fajitas are served with salt, pepper and kumquat (as well as sour cream), a variation typical of Vietnam.
In the evening Khoi Thom really comes into its own. With Latin music playing in the background, cocktails, Corona beer with that squeeze of lime and a gentle breeze running through the restaurant, there is just this sense that a slice of Mexico may have been transported to Vietnam.
Sushi Dining AOI
53-55 Ba Huyen Thanh Quan, Q3
A sign of authenticity in a restaurant serving non local fare can always be found in the customers. Sushi AOI is no different. On our visit, this subtly lit, sleek and contemporary eatery was filled mainly with Japanese — a good sign for anyone wanting to gauge the food quality of a particular venue.
I’m going to venture a bold statement. A very bold one. AOI might just be the best sushi and sashimi restaurant in town. What is on offer here, at least on the specials menu, was certainly like nothing I’d ever tasted in the city. It was even an opinion shared by a close Japanese peer.
But let’s just leave that accolade dangling there for a moment. AOI is one of our clients — so, it would be easy to say we’re pandering to ‘vested interests’. We’re not. So, what is it that makes this place so special?
The secret is not just in the ingredients — a large factor in the make up of any sushi or sashimi dish. It’s also in the marinade, the way the fish and crustaceans are treated, and then, of course in the rice. As my Japanese friend pointed out, “There’s something in the rice there. I don’t know what it is, but it just tastes different.”
According to AOI, though, all they’re trying to do is to revive traditional dishes and preparation methods that were prevalent in Japan 40 or 50 years ago. Take for example the salmon belly sushi (VND39,000 / two pieces). Here the skin is separated from the fish, made crispy and then re-attached with a soy sauce mix, meaning that the final bite doesn’t need to be dipped in soy sauce or wasabi. It’s to die for. Then there’s the oily, grilled Hokke fish (VND150,000) from Hokkaido, a dish that is to mackerel what wagyu is to beef.
During my trip I was treated to quite a feast, had my share of home AOI’s homemade miso, and walked away aghast. I’m putting my money where my mouth is. Let’s hope AOI can do the same.