The New Taste of Saigon

Stepping out of the shadows of French fine dining, a new guard of visionary young chefs is capturing the city's culinary zeitgeist.

Jan 17, 2020

By Connla Stokes. Photographs by Morgan Ommer.

More than a century ago, a cosmopolitan cuisine was simmering in pots and pans all across Saigon—but it wasn’t in the kitchens of the swankiest French eateries, where colonials and émigrés from the Third Republic were eating generic staples made from canned goods. No, it was far from the city’s genteel boulevards that Vietnamese and Chinese chefs, armed with fish sauce, spicy peppers and indigenous ingredients, were gamely tinkering with French fare to satisfy the tastes of their Asian clientele.

And now? The old colonial outpost, once billed as “Paris of the East,” is a teeming multicultural city where local chefs, more inspired than ever, are redefining the fine-dining scene smack in the heart of downtown District 1.

“We’re not hiding in the back of the kitchen anymore,” says Le Viet Hong, the 27-year-old Saigon-born head chef of The Monkey Gallery, a sleek, minimalist-look three-floor restaurant where you’ll find a fashionable set of regulars selecting their favorites from a signature menu, if not embarking on a seasonal 15-course degustation. After training in Paris, at A.T. restaurant under Chef Atsushi Tanaka and La Marine with Chef Alexandre Couillon, Hong worked in Tokyo before repatriating in 2018 to explore his hometown’s leading high-end restaurants. “I thought, ‘Where are all of the Vietnamese head chefs? Isn’t it about time we show the world what we can do?’” Hong, whose cuisine can be described as characteristically multilayered, with French, Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese flavors and ingredients, took the issue of representation into his own hands, training up a team of early-twentysomething Saigonese for The Monkey Gallery’s launch last year.

Art on a plate at the restaurant. By Morgan Ommer.

On my visit, Hong’s global influences come to the fore. An ethereal “fat-free” duck consommé features a dim sum–style dumpling as well as abalone from New Zealand; a fermented shrimp sauce and beetroot ravioli accompanies a slender Iberico pork cheek; foie gras, cured in miso and matcha for three to six days, arrives with flecks, strokes and dabs of wasabi, pineapple jam, frutti de cappelo, white-chocolate sauce and yuzu gel, underscoring Hong’s eye for aesthetics. “We have no paintings on the walls,” he says. “The art in this gallery is here on your plate.”

Dovetailing with Hong’s arrival on the scene is that of an old colleague of his, Francis Tran, who last year opened Esta Eatery, an intimate, modern venue that showcases the 31-year-old’s own multicultural sensibilities. “When I think of new ideas for dishes, I close my eyes and see a map of the world and imagine the spices and tastes that might come together in a single dish,” he says. These imaginings are no doubt inspired by his stints in Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Danish and French restaurants here in Saigon, and by his expeditions to Thailand and the Everest Base Camp with the globe-trotting pop-up restaurant One Star House Party.

Like the city around his home, his single-page menu is ever-evolving, but you’ll always encounter contemporary, eclectic compositions. You could start with a moreish smokey eel pâté with a dollop of tare sauce and a hint of wasabi at its heart and house-made sourdough by its side, or grilled Hokkaido scallops with braised shiitake and a truffle, soy and yuzu mustard. Meanwhile, mains prepared in the wood- red grill—say, duck breast with black-garlic puree, or rainbow trout with burnt orange beurre noisette—reveal Francis’s fondness for flame-licked flavors and intense reductions.

Having worked with acclaimed Australian-French chef Julien Perraudin at Quince Saigon (outpost of a Bangkok pan-national dining stalwart), Francis cites “Melbourne cuisine” as one of his biggest influences. In that, he’s not alone.

“When I was studying public relations in Melbourne, I used to go to Lune Croissanterie and marvel at the perfectionism of the pastries. That’s why I decided to stay in Australia and go to culinary school there,” says 24-year-old pastry chef Kasey Doan, who launched Ivoire Pastry Boutique with her Singaporean fiancé, Nigel, in late 2018. “When I came home
to Saigon, I couldn’t find any high-quality pastries or petit gateaux that satisfied my own cravings, so I told Nigel that we should open our own patisserie.

“And, well, here we are…”

Located in a French-period townhouse that faces the historic landmarks of Notre Dame Basilica and the Saigon Post Office, Ivoire draws a mix of Asian and European tourists, expats and locals through the day. Some come for the perfect croissants and many more for the elegant Earl Grey mille crêpe, but it’s Kasey’s more ornate creations that showcase her modernist flair. Exhibit A: The Coconut Sour (VND140,000), concocted with calamansi curd, pineapple and lemongrass compote, hazelnut sponge and coconut mousse, and topped with a miniature, ersatz fried egg made from passion fruit, coconut crème and “seasoned”
with vanilla and coconut powder. Exhibit B: Avocado (VND170,000) composed of avocado mousse, lemon cheesecake, yuzu, hazelnut crumble and a touch of mango.

Ivoire’s house-made croissants. By Morgan Ommer.

When told that many in town assume that Nigel, who runs front of house, is the creative genius behind Ivoire, Kasey smiles. “I really hope Ivoire can help raise the profile of female chefs in Saigon,” she says. “All of my staff are young Vietnamese women, which is why we built the open kitchen. I want customers to see us and know who we are.”

MORE HIP AND HAUTE IN SAIGON

Creating quite the buzz in 2017, Vietnamese-American chef and restaurateur Peter Cuong Franklin launched what he called ‘Cuisine Moi’ (New Vietnamese Cuisine). His restaurant Anan (anansaigon.com; tasting menus from VND975,000) is a popular stop for foodies in Saigon with its contemporary interpretations of local street-food dishes—think rice-paper pizza topped with escargot, banh xeo (crispy pancakes) recast as tacos, and spring rolls stuffed with foie gras (there is also a vegetarian tasting menu). Upstairs from Anan, you can listen to vintage Saigonese tunes from the late sixties at the retro chic nhau nhau, a creative pho and cocktail bar, where you can slurp down a decadent truffle pho (VND225,000) with wagyu beef while sipping on a tamarind whisky sour or phojito (VND185,000). For those seeking classic, high-end French dining in Saigon, Jardin Des Sens (jdspourcel.com; mains from VND1,250,000) boasts Michelin-star credentials, though do note that the executive chefs Jacques and Laurent Pourcel still reside in France. More nostalgic French dining experiences can be found at long-time favorites Ty Coz (178/4 Pasteur; 84-28/3822-2457), Atelier Des Reves Bistro (fb.com/adrbistrot) and The Refinery (therefinerysaigon.com).

Facing a full house from his own open kitchen on a typically lively Friday night at Sol Kitchen & Bar, one assumes everyone knows the handsome and heavily inked Adrian Cong Yen is running the show. “I am not going to lie, I enjoy the spotlight!” says the 29-year-old, who hails from Kuala Lumpur and worked in celebrated French, Spanish and Argentinian restaurants in Singapore before relocating to Vietnam, where he fell in love twice in one year (once to the city, later to his wife).

Sol, which opened in 2019, has given Adrian a chance to try something completely different: high-end Latin- and Central American–inspired cuisine. “We’re not obsessed about replicating authentic Peruvian or Mexican dishes at Sol. We’re trying to create a high-quality dining experience that’s just right for Ho Chi Minh City,” says Adrian as he introduces various signature dishes to be shared: a zesty swordfish ceviche and mushroom quesadilla with truffle aioli to start, followed by a medium-rare carne asada and charred octopus, both of which come with on-point, homemade, of course, flour tortillas. To wash it all down, Adrian recommends a locally brewed East West Pilsner or, his favorite, the Sol Margarita with ground grasshopper encrusting the glass rather than salt.

“One customer almost seemed annoyed when I told him I wasn’t from Central or Latin America. But at the end of the day, I see what we’re doing as typically Asian. Everyone around a table, sharing great food and having fun,” says Adrian, who, like Hong and Kasey, devoted a great deal of time to mentor his own kitchen team, who are all aged 18 to 27.

Located in a downtown ward known for its hidden boutiques, taprooms and speakeasies, and with its all-white Mediterranean-style interior and stellar service, Sol draws (and appeases) both young couples on date nights and larger groups with T.G.I.F. vibes (no matter what the night). “What can I say, this city is buzzing right now,” Adrian tells me. “The only thing slowing us down is the traffic.”

THE DETAILS

THE MONKEY GALLERY RESTAURANT & DESSERT BAR fb.com/themonkeygallery; 91 Mac Thi Buoi; 15-course degustation VND1.5 million, with wine pairings from VND700,000; open Tuesday to Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

SOL KITCHEN & BAR solkitchenbar.com; 115 Ly Tu Trong; dinner and drinks for two VND1,620,000; open Monday to Saturday 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.

ESTA EATERY
 estasaigon.com; 27 Tran Quy Khoach st. Tan Dinh ward, District 1; dinner and drinks for two VND2,400,000; open Tuesday to Sunday 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.

IVOIRE PASTRY BOUTIQUE fb.com/ivoirepastry; 57 Nguyen Du; tea and cake for two VND465,000; open Tuesday to Friday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

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