Apr 26, 2021
THERE’S MORE THAN ONE REASON I don’t take photos of my dinner and post them on Instagram, but, these days, it’s mostly because I don’t want friends and family in Europe and the U.S. to know how frequently I am dining out in Saigon.
While my kith and kin remain in social purgatory, the only absolute lockdown I had to endure in Vietnam came to end on April 30, 2020, coincidentally a public holiday that honors the country’s reunification in 1975.
That weekend, all across Saigon, the celebrations were most conspicuous at the quan nhau (the local beer and grill joints), where giddy punters clinked glasses and toasted the nation’s collective success in eliminating Covid-19 (at the time there were zero deaths).
Photos by Cedric Arnold (2)
While face masks and hand sanitizer remain in our day-to-day lives here, and there have been outbreaks elsewhere in Vietnam, for the last year Saigon’s residents have pretty much been free to eat wherever they like. That’s not to say the local F&B industry has come away unscathed. With zero internationals arrivals ambling up and down central streets such as Dong Khoi, all around the downtown area today you will see ‘Cho Thue Nha’ (‘house for rent’) posters plastered on the facades of vacant buildings that once accommodated a superfluity of souvenir shops, spas, commercial art galleries and restaurants.
But, despite having no clue when tourists will be back to boost restaurant revenues across town, the award-winning chef Peter Cuong Franklin would rather look for the silver lining as he surveys a twilight skyline from his rooftop bar. “The thing is, we’ve done the opposite of what you might expect in the last 10 to 11 months. We’ve hired more people, added a whole new floor and concept, and we even built a lab for R&D downstairs!” says Franklin, the owner of ănăn, which recently made history by becoming the first restaurant in Vietnam to ever break into Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants.
“We were incredibly lucky compared to most other countries around the world. We’ve been open for much of the last 12 months, but we’ve also had a little more time to play around, try new things, keep pushing the boundaries.”
Since opening ănăn in 2016, Franklin has focused on developing what he calls “cuisine mói” (Vietnamese for ‘nouveau cuisine’), for which he recasts local culinary characters as their own gourmet alter egos. For one of his signatures, Caviar Banh Nhung, Franklin takes the architecture of a traditional Vietnamese waffle and fills the ornate, delicate structure with salmon mousse, dill cream and crème fraiche and salmon roe to create a food-moan-inducing flavor-bomb. A more recent addition to the menu, Franklin’s Banh Bot Loc (a kind of dumpling) heightens the inherent sophistication of Vietnamese cuisine with an ethereal wrapping that encases slow-cooked beef cheeks shredded and mixed into a fine paste of foie gras. (And yes, for those who recognize the name, there really is an off-the-menu $100 banh mi).
Courtesy of ănăn (2)
After meeting friends on the rooftop for a sundowner or two, my favorite place to eat at ănăn (think of it as a multi-floor emporium) is on the third floor nhau-nhau, a svelte cocktail bar with spacey Wong Kar Wai vibes where you can sip on potent concoctions made with local adjuncts (say, a tamarind whisky sour, or a Dalat negroni). This year, Franklin has also found the time to add another layer (or should I say lair?) with the fourth floor Pot Au Pho, where Vietnam’s signature noodle soup has been given the ănăn treatment.
The eponymous showpiece dish takes a minimum 20 minutes to prepare and confronts the diner with a crusty puff pastry in a bowl. After you crack the exterior and peek inside, you’ll discover delectable sous vide cooked, dry-aged beef, along with foie gras, truffle paste, all sitting in a beefy consommé (now’s probably a good time to mention there’s also a vegan pho, too). Avoiding carbs? Slurp down the One-Bite-Pho (described as “molecular sphere of pho”) and order freely from a section titled ‘bivalves’ (snails, cockles, clams and whelk), Franklin’s tribute to Saigon’s favorite shelled snacks, often eaten on the street.
Courtesy of ănăn (3)
Besides opening Pot Au Pho, over the last year Franklin has also been developing his supply chain, seeking sustainable farm-to-table solutions and organic produce. “So much of what we have accomplished wouldn’t have happened without Covid. Before, we were always too busy,” he adds, just before a table of regulars call out for the ‘champ’ (days prior to ănăn making it onto Asia’s Best 50 list, Franklin bested a fellow chef in a charity boxing match). “It’s been quite a week,” he says with a smile before heading off to do the rounds.
After leaving ănăn, which stands in the middle of the city’s most central wet market, I wander around downtown, where local cafes, bubble tea franchises, dessert bars and roving snack vendors all seem busier than ever, something else that my housebound friends and family back home might not comprehend (or appreciate me posting on Instagram). But it’s a telling sign of Covid that many high-end eateries, which would have once welcomed steady flows of tourists, now seem less than half full on a Friday.
The good news is that the city’s very best fine-dining restaurants (chosen from an entirely subjective list filed under ‘IMHO’) have all been ticking over and await your custom: The Monkey Gallery, home to the hugely talented chef Le Viet Hong, who merges Vietnamese, French and Japanese techniques and flavors; KIBA, where chef Pedro Goizueta creates tapas, using as many organic and locally sourced ingredients as possible; Quince Saigon, much-loved for its stellar produce-driven dishes, assembled by the towering chef Julien Perraudin; and ESTA, where the gifted Francis Tran is forging his own global cuisine in a local neighborhood alley. Also, for those with a sweet tooth, the visionary pâtissière Kasey Doan has reassembled her all-female team of bakers and resurrected Ivoire, cooking up the city’s most imaginative cakes and pastries.
Last but not least, there is also a new kid on the block: the acclaimed Hanoian chef Hoang Tung, who in early 2021 surprised everyone in town by launching Å By Tung, his first foray in the southern hub. “I never thought I’d open a restaurant in Saigon because I never thought offering a single tasting menu would work as a concept in Hanoi. No one did!” says Tung, a tall, jolly character, whose first restaurant T.U.N.G. Dining opened in December 2018, and just earned a place on this year’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants secondary list (Nos. 51 to 100).
A precocious 28-year-old talent, who worked at Michelin-starred restaurants across Scandinavia (after graduating from university with a degree in economics), Tung refrains from describing any of the dishes on his tasting menus. All diners see are two core ingredients, for example: Oyster – Dill or Parsnip – Duck. “Well, what’s the point of a tasting menu, if it’s not a surprise?” Tung says as he oversees the studied action in his ground floor open kitchen that guests will walk by on arrival. “I see the meal as sort of a soundtrack.” In other words, he’ll show you the track listing but until you begin to taste the dish, you can’t hear the melody.
Without further ado, I am led upstairs (close to fully booked on my Saturday evening visit) to taste the whole symphony while seated in a otherworldly wunderkammer that celebrates Tung’s Nordic affiliations — there’s an ‘aurora’ on the ceiling, an avant garde stalactite sculpture in the corner, and a cool, blue-lit wine cellar that looks like a portal into another realm
The tasting menu (at VND1,990,000), which can be paired with wine, craft beer, or, if you’re watching your toxins, house-made fermented juices, changes seasonally (four times a year), which is one of the reasons why Tung regularly puts in 16 hour days. Recent highlights from the Spring menu included a dish titled Carabineros – Yuzukosho for which the premium prawn is lightly cured with a smooth yet zesty yuzu sauce, while for Iberico – Chorizo a skewer of melt-in-your mouth pork (marinated with fermented rice and galangal leaf) arrives alongside a condensed and wondrous chorizo sauce.
Courtesy of Å By Tung
At one stage during the meal, Tung appears to explain why they use a 3D food printer to prepare certain components — for example, a golden-brown scallop might arrive perched upon an intricate 3D-printed crown, made of pea puree. Even the butter is shaped by the printer. This not only helps the kitchen reduce food waste (technology being more precise than the human hand) but also enables Å By Tung to keep surprising return diners with the aesthetics of plating.
Before doing his own rounds to greet customers, Tung adds that his biggest investment has been the time he has devoted to training his team of young Vietnamese chefs, which also provides a significant pay-off. “The better they get, the more time I have to research and create new dishes for the next menu,” he says, knowing that soon it will be summer, then autumn, and perhaps — fingers crossed — by the end of the year, tourists (and Michelin reviewers?) will also be here in Saigon, relishing the joy of dining out at world-class restaurants, and freely posting as many pictures on Instagram as they like.