LA VILLA - THIERRY MOUNON (*****L): Voted since many years the best French restaurant in HCMC by Tripadvisor, which is a challenge in a gastronomic city where fine dining restaurants are plentiful, this prosperous pool-villa in the heart of high-end District 2 saves the gourmet the cost of a plane ticket to Paris. A 15 minutes taxi drive from the touristic District 1 makes you feel like in France, indeed.
Thierry Mounon's international experience in five-star restaurants, from Avignon to Bora Bora, then from Mui Ne to Saigon, could have produced one more "intellectual" chef, like those, plethoric, marketing a fusion or neo-French cuisine in the trendy lounge-restaurants flourishing in New York, Barcelona, London or Sidney. By humility or cleverness, he preferred to keep on with tradition, letting the prime quality ingredients talk: transforming himself into the ambassador of “French Cuisine Bourgeoise” in Saigon, yet -we noticed it on our last visit in December 2019- dealing sometimes with a twist of well-measured sophistication.
From the so classic and authentically romantic dining room, featuring heavy curtains, prosperous furniture, and one of the finest cutlery in town, till the specialties available a la carte or by the amazingly affordable lunch menu “De la Petite Villa” (USD 38), or menu "Discovery" (USD 86), were so excited to invite our Vietnamese host to virtually cross the oceans and the mountains, just stepping into that “bourgeoise”, deliciously old-school “auberge”. We still have some like that in Caen, Bourges, Avignon, Saint-Malo...: sleepy cities from our beautiful French provinces, where eating well is part of the culture. If many restaurants in Saigon serve a premium cuisine, no one can beat the authenticity provided by La Villa. No marketing, no trick was used to produce this divine and refined impression: Chef Thierry just forgot he is a chef, and rather behaves like a host. Assisted by Tina, his charming wife, acting like a most attentive “Maîtresse de Maison” backed by the most anticipating staff in town. Most of the 22 kitchen and dining room employees remain attached to La Villa since its opening, nine years ago!
Mounon's cuisine is generous, mixing skill and heart, and making an impression from the very beginning of the dinner which started, of course, with a glass of refreshing “Champagne Pol Roger, Réserve”, presented in style with refined canapés. Produced in Epernay, this is one of the rare Champagne appointed by Queen Elisabeth. It came with a set of light and elegant “amuse-bouche” (we liked the "Beef Curry Samosa" and the "Mushroom Mini-Pie" particularly), and prepared our palate to the best yet to come.
The sea is aristocratically represented in the new "Menu Privilege" (USD 115, served for the whole table only) featuring most of the five star dishes enjoyed during our lavish diner (this is the reason why we didn't mention the price for each): it commemorates the maturity of Mounon's cuisine after almost a decade at La Villa. It also pairs the elevated demand from the part of the local gourmets: lots of them are Asian (there were Chinese, Singaporean and Vietnamese in the dining room the night of our last visit). Our starter could have been eaten just with the nose, such its fragrance was developed: freshly imported “Raviole of French Blue Lobster from Brittany”: exquisitely, carefully, lovingly roasted by Thierry with olive oil, orange, and anis butter. We like lobster with aniseed or a pinch of vanilla. Great dish pairs with great wine: we had it with white “Côtes-du-Rhône, Réserve Mont-Redon, Abeille Fabre, 2018”. Planted on stony, limestone-clay plains around the towns of Orange and Roquemaure, the grapes are generously exposed to the sun. Revealing refreshing fruity, mineral aromas. Our partner preferred to keep with Champagne, which is also a marvelous pairing with lobster.
Richly presented in a modern black china plate, the "Remoulade" mixing pear, apple, pomelo, and the rarest Russian King Crab, Japanese Hokkaido Scallop, and French Kaviari Caviar enlighted with drops of pure gold, depicted the chef's new influence in term of luxury and innovation. Appealing the eyes, and pleasing the palate, this dish quickly became a favorite at La Villa. If the Red Michelin guide is approaching Saigon, then Thierry is next to the star... We paired our Remoulade with the rest of our glass of Côtes-du-Rhône, and another small glass of “Sancerre”, from the most famous vineyard (Pascal Jolivet) in this hilly region of French Berry. Fruity, mineral, and superlative as always with Sancerre. Alternatively, we would recommend “Line-caught Sea Bass from Oleron, France”, which we had with clams, spinach, and a tasty Bouillabaisse. This is a recipe by Mounon's grand-mother, transmitted from generation to generation in the family. Though we rather use sorrel with fish, the match with spinach was ad hoc. We checked the latest, Summer 2020 menu, and it was accompanied that time with Artichokes Barigoule and Saffron Beurre Blanc (ideally paired with white “Bourgogne Le Renard, Chardonnay, 2015, still young with a crisp”). The chef updates his cuisine very often, and good surprises are always expected from him. There is no routine at La Villa, where the cuisine isn't industry but a passion.
Unexpected in Asia, yet still a surviving tradition in France on a multi-dishes banquet, we got an “Interlude”: actually, a refreshing “Trou Normand” (Orange Sherbet with a generous shot of Calvados Lecompte, “Five Years Old” ) timely set to stabilize both our palate and stomach in the middle of the dinner.
The grill at La Villa serves the best meats in town (beating from far the popular -and extravagantly pricy- El Gaucho), astonishingly not imported from France. The reason is simple: Asian gourmets prefer corn fed, sweeter meat from Australia, New Zealand or the USA, when we French prefer Charolais. Nevertheless, the super tender and juicy “Wagyu Rib-Eye Beef from Victoria Highlands”, carefully cut at our table by the elegant lady Maitre d', came medium rare in our plate, accompanied with al dente Riso: this regional form of Risotto, confectioned with small pasta easily confused with rice, is more refined that Risotto indeed. The pasta absorbed the fragrance, and came with a perfect texture. This is a refined dish, moreover when it has been mixed with morelle and duck foie gras...not to forget raisins marinated in Armagnac. This could a separate dish, as it is worth by itself as one of the highlights of our dinner. Paired with an exceptional Bordeaux “Château Malmaison, Moulis en Médoc, Baronne Nadine de Rothschild, 2014”. Baronne Nadine brings her name, after the late Baronne Philippine, to one of French gourmets’ favorite wines. This meet experience was so reminiscent of the rich Sunday lunch best cuts from the butcher, cooked by our mother after the mass. Traveling back in time is one more bonus at La Villa.
We have been presented a nice selection of the best French farm cheese (selected and refined by “Les Frères Marchands), traditionally by the trolley. We could enjoy whatever we liked in gourmet potions: Livarot, Camembert… Or a rare “Fourme d’Ambert Espuma”, alternating just for the pleasure one glass of balanced, with elegant tones “Le Petit Merle aux Alouettes, Merlot, Alain Chabanon, 2016”, reflecting the sun of the region of Lagamas, not far from Sète. It came, with the best bread in Saigon. We ate so much of it during our dinner. Olive bread and puffed “Duck Liver Petit Pain” beat Lasserre and La Tour d'Argent in Paris!
Our banquet ended with a yummy “Fruit Gratin” (it takes 15 minutes to prepare it), and a glass of “Porto Ramos Pinto”. We didn't mention the price of the wine in our review, as we recommend the wine pairing option, letting the very professional sommelier guide you without any surprise over the bill. It is globally good value for the money. One glass of Champagne, for instance, costs USD 19; which is reasonable in Saigon.
The best staff in town, mainly feminine and most charming, pampered us between each dish, inquiring about our opinion on the cuisine and wines. The restaurant was full, like always, but Tina and her team didn’t seem much impressed, always ready to give ad hoc suggestions with that authentic kindness characteristic of La Villa. Few restaurants in France could employ so many staff nowadays, and this is sometimes a little painful to see that it takes a ten hours flight to find in Saigon what you hardly find nowadays in Paris for a much higher bill.
Saigon has more than 3400 restaurants. We would surely like to come back to ten of them: La Villa remains on the top since our first experience in 2016. It has its regular patrons, and surprisingly lots of them are locals. We have also seen a couple of tables occupied by honeymooners. Tina takes great care of them all year long, and Valentine Day is always celebrated lovingly in this embassy of the French good taste.
Open Monday – Saturday 11:45 to 16:00; dinner 18:30 to late (last order is 21:30).
LA VILLA: 14 Ngo Quang Huy, Thao Dien Ward, (Opposite to An Phu Supermarket), District 2, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
PHONE: +84 8 3898 2082, +84 9 0771 9879
LEVEL 23 SIGNATURE (*****L): A top five best hotel restaurant in Saigon, and certainly the most affordable in the five-star luxury category, this relatively neutral dining room has two noteworthy qualities: a breathtaking view of the city at night, and a superlative cuisine by Executive Chef Lorraine Sinclair.
The restaurant has been designed to cope with both a business dinner and a candlelit romance. Recently beautified in a discrete design, with tables configured in deuces, fours and sixes, it has a breezy terrace where we would advise you to book your atmospheric dinner. Those preferring air-condition will straightly book the corner table where we sat, enjoying the best view over the colonial City Hall and the high-rise buildings mushrooming all around. We could also observe the ballet of the cooks, supervised by Lorraine. With more than 25 years of global experience around the world, she has held executive chef positions in Istanbul, Hong Kong, Seoul, and Dubai. Bringing Level 23 what it takes to stand up against the world’s greats, she already managed two restaurants in HK which were awarded Michelin Stars. She joined Sheraton Saigon Hotel & Towers in 2016, transforming the then rather mediocre “Pan Asian” concept into a modern “Western Grill”, and one of the leading steakhouses in Saigon.
The tableware is elegant and doesn't show up the tacky touch still spoiling the majority of Vietnamese fine-dining restaurants. The service is discreetly efficient. Let's check if the cuisine is on par with the good image of Level 23.
After a “Gyoza” Japanese pan-fried seafood dumpling as an amuse-bouche, we cleaned our palate and prepared it to the degustation with “Feta and Beetroot Salad”, featuring daily fresh Baby spinach, mint leaves, chili, spring onion, lettuce, walnut candy, and served with a discrete Signature dressing. We ate a lot of bread with our salad: it tasted like baked in France.
Our starter was “Signature Prawn Cocktail” (Chilled prawns, homemade cocktail sauce, lumpfish roe “caviar”), which we found also most refreshing; though not that much fine-dining, and more adapted to the excellent buffet at Saigon Cafe. We would rather recommend the sappy, ideally textured “Signature Crab Cake”, with homemade Tartare sauce, and a lemon wedge.
The best was yet to come. We reached the gastronomic cruise altitude with our main dishes. Fish was a thick piece of steamed “Cod Filet”. The plate was as elegant as in a Michelin-star restaurant: featuring sautéed spinach, clam lime chili lemongrass, and a supremely succulent ginger coconut broth. The cooking time was ad hoc, resulting in a pleasant texture and ideal savor. Level 23 Signature is reputed for its fish and seafood: like freshly shucked oysters, Boston and Vietnamese lobsters cooked freshly from the tank.
We paired it all with one glass of Australian “Autumn Riesling, Koonunga Hill, Penfolds, 2014” (USD 14 per glass). Intensely perfumed, with a wonderful length of flavor dominated by lime, this elegant wine fits perfectly the tropical climate.
What makes Lorraine fame is meat. She was awarded “Best Steak House 2013” by Time Out when she supervised the cuisines at the Fairmont Dubai. Signature's regular patrons visit her restaurant for the legendary “Butter-aged US Beef Tenderloin”. The meat, dry-aged four weeks inside a block of butter is... to die for. Until now, El Gaucho remained at the first position for our best steak experience in town. But Lorraine's tenderloin breaks all the records! Medium rare, it resulted tender like... butter, and so exquisite that we just used a few drops of the tempting peppercorn sauce. We let the meat “speak by itself”... and it did. It was nicely displayed over a slate, with a whole piece of backed garlic, and green asparagus. The weight (220gr) is sufficient to satisfy a strong appetite. More wouldn't be cholesterol friendly...
It was paired with “Matua, Pinot Noir, Marlborough, 2016”, from New Zealand. Incredibly bright and smooth, with red fruit flavor matching the aromas of the pink meat. A great choice, at USD 10 per glass only.
The final touch was the sweetest ever. The “Salted Caramel and Popcorn Cheese Cake in a Jar” was yummy, though maybe too saturated in sugar for a European palate. We preferred the actually exceptional, so French “Baked Lemon Meringue Pie”. Classic and classy. The cherry on the cake of a brilliant, and astonishingly affordable dinner in a luxury restaurant, where the average bill per person is USD 40 – 60 (excluding wine).
Open Daily 18:00 - 22:00.
LEVEL 23 SIGNATURE (at Sheraton Saigon Hotel & Towers): 88 Dong Khoi Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
PHONE: +842838272828, +842838272929
MAISON MÂN-DO (*****): Its name sounds like a synthesis: this “maison” (house in French) is the place where East meets West. Or, more precisely, where France meets Vietnam. Designed into a nostalgic Indochinese style, with a refined dining room and certainly one of the most romantic terraces in town, this elegant mansion became within only a few months one of the most recommended Vietnamese restaurants. Ear to mouth drove us to the chic, slightly remote District 2, where the best chefs are slowly setting an upscale gastronomic hub. With La Villa a few blocks away, Maison Mân-Do has no choice but dealing with perfection.
What did we like? Everything! The elegance of the house, display of the dining room (with a cozy private room, ideal for families or business lunch), made-to-order furniture, nostalgic pictures of the yesteryears capital city of Cochinchina... Everything is appealing. Tables are separated enough for a romance or confidential discussion, providing a comfort optimized by the generous volume of the room. There is a nice playground for the kids: uncommon in this category of restaurant.
As soon as we sat, the plethoric and well-trained staff approached us. Two minutes later our drinks were on our table. It took much longer, let's blame it on ourselves, to start our dinner as... it was so difficult to choose out of 167 tempting dishes from Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina. We liked the elegant menu, parchment and exquisitely illustrated, reminiscent of the golden years of the French Protectorate. Vietnamese check it greedily. They represent more than 50% of the patrons: which proves that the cuisine is actually authentic. The management didn't forget the Western expatriates housed in the condominiums nearby, and the very few tourists sent by the luxury hotels in District 2 (Saigon Domaine, Villa Song...): the head-waiter spent much time with us, his iPad in hand, showing pictures of the signature dishes, kindly trying to orientate our order.
The cuisine stands halfway between upgraded street food and, our last visit in December 2019 showed it, more and more to trendy Vietnamese fusion. Compared with the often excellent, though sometimes risky experience in the tiny local restaurants, the origin and freshness of the ingredients are carefully tracked by the chef. Moreover, the “Ga” (chicken), “Bo” (beef), and “Thit” (pork) have been grown in established farms. Fish comes from the territorial waters. The excellent Tofu is 100% homemade (Maison Mân-Do is vegetarian friendly).
Our previous visits at Maison Mân-Do, dating back from more than one year, are still in our memory... Sampling some of the most delicious and sometimes surprising signature dishes, like “Glass Noodle Salad with Shrimps”. We loved the al-dente texture of the noodle. This is a very classic specialty, served around the world. Refreshing and sappy, indeed. Another classic, “Rice Paper Roll with BBQ Pork”, paired well with a selection of aromatic sauces, which we also used to develop the unique savor of one of our favorite specialties from the Hué: skewer like “Fishcake” (more precisely “Ca Thac Lac Cuon Mang Tay”), wrapping a green asparagus instead of a stick of wood. “Mustard Leef Roll with Beef” was one of the highlights of the dinner. The whole set came combo-style: served over the same platter. The also would recommend the superlative “Seabass with Passion Fruit Sauce”: an odd pairing, matching nicely one of our favorite fishes. Served over a bed of fresh, crispy soya, accompanied with Enoki mushrooms, this is, with the clay pot specialties, a best-seller at Maison Mân-Do.
Our last experience, à la carte, was even more interesting, as we discovered new, more sophisticated savors that time. We particularly liked the nicely textured “Mustard Leaf Wrap with Fish Paste”. The bitterness of the spicy leaf exacerbated the sweet taste of the concentrated, curry-like fish paste. We liked the presentation and the crisp of the “Ho Tay Fried Shrimps”, over a canapé of fried sweet potatoes. “Glass Noodles Cà Mau Crab Soup” was so fishy; yet, not as much as the amazingly tasty “Soft Shell Crab with salted Egg Sauce”. Salted egg is more used in desserts, such as Mid-Autumn Cake, and rice soup. It was deliciously developing the unique aromas of the shell crab, converting it into a delicacy! The amazingly affordable and so fragrant “Pan-Fried Glass Noodles with Crab & Vegetable”, is a light alternative: as less oil as possible is used for its perfect cooking.
Poultry at Maison Mân-Do is sappy and fairly priced. We would be superlative regarding the quality of the new chef's signature “Grilled Chicken Fillet with Lemon Leaves”, slowly marinated and perfumed with the elegant, bitter fragrance of the leaves. We dipped the melting, almost buttery meat into salt pepper & lemon juice sauce: a traditional base for grill dish in Vietnamese style.
We couldn't leave the table without experiencing “Passion Fruit custard” (sweet and sour... our favorite!), “Creme Caramel” (a classic), or “Grass Jelly Pudding”, refreshing our palate adequately.
The portions have been sharply calculated for a normal Western appetite. Vietnamese are serious eaters, anytime and anywhere. Lots of them, pampered by Thanh and her partner Ni Le, the exquisite "maîtresses de maison", made this restaurant their canteen. Usually ordering not less than eight dishes to share with their family or friends.
The room ambiance was easy-going and nostalgic with, on Friday and Saturday evenings, a pianist softly playing French melodies (Amélie Poulain, Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour...).
What will make us visiting this restaurant again is the amazingly light bill: with one glass of nicely selected house wine (we had paired our dinner with fruity "Sauvignon Blanc, Oxford Landing Estate, Australia", at USD 6.5 by the glass), a fine dinner shouldn't cost you more than USD 25. Which is unbeatable in such a stylish, amazingly well serviced gastronomic restaurant which gained in popularity since it had been invested by TV shows, gala dinners, and further social events, celebrations (wedding, birthdays...) or business functions (hosting prestigious business dinner, tea-breaks, and leading companies corporate lunches).
MAISON MÂN-DO: Nguyen U Di, Phuong Thao Dien, District 2, 70000 Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
PHONE: +84 933 77 44 87
STOKER WOODFIRED GRILL & BAR (*****L): Two places are symbolizing fire: Hell and Stoker. We definitely prefered to visit the second one. A smart restaurant, where all dishes are woodfire grilled. Located in the Golden Triangle of Saigon, close to Dong Khoi and the Opera House, it is more luxurious compared with El Gaucho (which used to be the referrent steakhouse downtown during many years). Far less expensive, it doesn't concentrate its offer on meat: the menu also features seafood (principally shells), vegetables, and remarkable desserts.
Welcomed by a ravishing hostess, our visit started at the bar: one of the most glamourous venues in District 1, with an impressive stock of liquors with the best origins. Located at the ground floor, there is few chance that you may dine here if you come last minute: it is stormed by regular patrons. A bit noisy, as any trendy bar should be, this is not where we wished to have our first food tasting at Stoker. It has two more floors for a quieter, yet still warm atmosphere.
We sat in the second floor dining room: designed halfway between a British pub, and a Manhattan Upper East Side posh supper-club. It was maybe a bit too early (7:30pm), the room was still quite empty. It filled up quickly from 8:30 pm; still offering the same high level of comfort and service.
The acoustic was fine: which is not always the case in convivial restaurants. We could discuss without raising the voice.
Before ordering our appetizer, we had been invited to inspect the ground floor open kitchen. The meat, exhibited in a refrigerated show window like masterpieces of gastronomic art, is dry-aged until it obtains the texture of ham. This process takes approximately one month. The drier features principally Australian organic beef, and local farm duck. Once it had been finished in the in-house smoker, the meat, grilled over natural wood, gains a level of flavor and tenderness which we experienced nowhere else in Saigon.
The menu is attractive, easy to read, offering plenty of options. We let Australian Executive Chef George Bloomfield suggest us his a few signatures dishes.
We always skipped oysters in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. Too chewy. Tasteless. What wasn't our surprise discovering the high quality of Nha Trang Oysters: would they be more iodized, we should compare them with French “Fines de Claires”. We had them crude, and barbecued with preserved lemon, butter, and sea grapes. Though we are not much in favor of cooking oysters, we found this recipe very Mediterranean, and actually mouth watering. This is certainly the appetizer which we shall order next time we visit Stoker again. Alternatively, “Japanese Scallop”, with an alchemy of leek, pickled ginger, caper, and succulent pancetta crumbs, reminded of a food tasting hosted by Chef Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athénée Paris, a few years ago. A delicacy!
Chef George has another very unique seafood specialty: “Fresh Sea Urchin Toasts” with cured Italian Guanciale Pork Cheek. An odd association on the paper, but a delight in the plate. We didn't know that this shell, very popular in Mediterranean countries, was available in the Saigon gastronomic scene. Stoker imports it from Australia.
We had it all paired with Australian “Riesling Kilikanoon, Clare Valley, Killerman's Run, 2016”, combining fresh limes with lemon essence, and boosting pleasant crisp acidity.
Very academic, “Seared Foie Gras”, with caramelized pear (which we preferred to the figs, traditionaly accompanying foie gras), seasoned with Cambodian Kampot pepper, was served with a portion of distinctive, a bit Poilane-like home-baked sourdough bread. Classic and classy, it had been aristocratically paired with “CaRo, Cosecha 2016”, produced in Argentina by Nicolas Catena in collaboration with the highly prestigious French Domaines Barons de Rothschild (this explains the name: Ca for Catena, and Ro for Rothschild). Featuring Malbec from Mendoza for the strength, and predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon for a more fruity savor, this wine is a pure marvel. Served by the bottle, it paired lavishingly the rest of our dinner.
We like poultry a lot, and really appreciated George's “Crispy Skin Duck Breast”. Dried aged 21 days, it came ideally textured. Crispy as promised, with a melting flesh full of savors, it could give the illusion dtat it had been cooked by a French “Maître Rotisseur”. It was accompanied with kale cooked over the coal, Mulberry, and Kohlrabi cream with a subtle Central European taste.
The beef was equally remarkable, and among the very best ever tasted in Southeast Asia. We always preferred Australian Wagyu to the pricey Kobe, too fat for a Western palate, or to the US meat often injected with hormones. The 40 days dry-aged Sirloin, served over a wooden plate, was exceptional: envelopped with that unique charcoal essence, and a juicy texture, orgasmic in the mouth. Don't ask us which sauces were proposed with our Sirloin: when we have top quality steak in our plate, we don't use sauce at all. But we enjoyed a bit of the crispy vegetables accompanying our dish; “Brocolli with Brown Butter Almond”, and “Green Beans with Seeded Mustard & Garlic Chip”. Grilled, they keep all their vitamins and minerals, and their taste comes at a peak.
We were expecting the kind of desserts you commonly find in a steakhouse: cheesecake, ice creams... But George rather made it fine-dining until the very last moment, with the yummiest sweets ever. “Citrus & Lavender Delicious” with honey double cream, and “Crème Brûlée” were definitely what he defines in his sexy menu as “Happy Ending”...one of the best which we ever received in a city well known for this Oriental specialty!
We finished with one glass of “Ron Zacapa Centenario”, from Guatemala. Our favorite premium rum.
This faultless dinner would cost approximately USD 100 per person. Without wine. That was a bit a banquet, and being more reasonable than us you may expect a USD 70-80 bill. The tempting Set Lunch, at only USD 10 (!), features starter-main-dessert, plus Lavazza Espresso. Beef is often part of it, with just a little USD 3 for special steaks (“Grilled Australian Steak, 120 day Grain Fed, 150gr”, for example). It is only served from Monday until Friday, 11:30 am – 2:30 pm.
Open Monday - Friday: 11:30am – 12am, Saturday - Sunday: 4pm - 12am
Dress code casual.
STOKER WOODFIRED GRILL & BAR: 44 Mac Thi Buoi, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
PHONE: + 84 907 292725
XU RESTAURANT LOUNGE (*****L): A leading nightspot since 2005, attracting the preppies a bit like Annabel's London or Chez Castel Paris, it has the been designed following the same plans as a “memberhip club”: a lounge bar peppered with comfy couches with a bit loud music downstairs, and a quiet and chic restaurant upstairs. Many expats and locals stuck at the bar dozens of time a year, without visiting the restaurant ever. We did the contrary, and concentrated on the gastronomic resources of this exciting place, managed by one of the leading Vietnamese chefs from the young generation.
Bien Nguyen spent his childhood and adolescence in Australia. A born gourmet, he entered the industry when he was 15 years old. Initially a dishwasher, he quickly climbed the steps, and opened his first restaurant when he was 22. He came back to Vietnam in 2004, initiating a brilliant career which we would rather call a passion. After spending a couple of hours sharing our diner with him, we realized that, an accomplished foodie, he visited the best, and sometimes most secret restaurants around the world. To enjoy, not to copy, as his cuisine is definitely a personal interpretation of the Vietnamese cuisine. The Bien's touch doesn't alterate the tradition. He likes to say -and we enjoy this term for dropping it regularly into our reviews- that a good cuisine should be 3D. Particularly the Vietnamese one: visually appealing, with an ideal texture matching a perfect savor. Xu is not a plush restaurant serving local cuisine in elegant china, but a place where tradition rhymes with innovation. With a wine paring copied on the best French restaurants.
We prepared our palate with some “Gin Martini”, and started our trip into the culinary provinces of Vietnam from the North with “Pho Cuon Ha Noi”, rice noodle sheet rolled with minced beef and super fresh aromatic herbs. Followed by one of our favorites, “Nem Cua Be”, deep-fried crab and pork roll, with pickle and fresh rice noodle salad. Those iconic specialties, which we normally always enjoyed with Hanoi Beer, were much more attractively paired with one glass of well chilled “Fritz's Riesling, Rheinhessen, Familie Hasselbach 2017” from Germany. Its mineral taste counterbalanced the sweet and spicy aromas of the dipping sauce accompanying this succulent, classic appetizer.
Another ideally selected white wine, “Chardonnay Elegance, Pays d'Oc, Pierre & Remy Gauthier”, with fresh notes of vanilla, smoke, and hints of sweet spices, helped to develop the complex savors of Central Vietnam “Banh It Tran”: minced pork and shrimp, filled in a curious yet palatable glutinous rice cake. From the same region, “Cao Lau”, Hoi An noodle with Char Siu (“fork roasted” pork with red spices), was a delicacy very nicely presented into the plate, over a nest of mung bean sprout.
We like cuisine from the South. Enjoying it on a daily basis during our long gastronomic stays in Indochina but... never experienced local “Grilled Sturgeon”, indeed! A favorite in Russia and Central Europe, we didn't know that it was also served in Vietnam. It is! At least in Xu, where it tasted so divinely! Fragrantly marinated in turmeric. More tropical, “Coconut Braised Pork Belly” melted in our mouth, sweet and sour, due to the pickled red cabbage and caramelized Daikon -mild flavored radish- accompanying this signature dish, adequately paired with intense French red wine from Pays d'Oc: “Pig Edition, Cuvée réservée, AOC Minervois, Roche Mazet 2017”.
Xu is also reputed for the quality of its steaks. Though it wasn't featured in our Four-Course Set Menu (only USD 60, including wine pairing), we wished to experience beef, and tasted “Soy Glazed Beef Fillet Mignon” from the Five-Course menu (USD 82, including wine pairing). It was more filet than Mignon (“Filet Mignon” is pork, by definition). Like stewed, it almost melted over our tongue. As a reward, it was served with savory “Garlic Potatoe Purée”, reminding us a bit of Joël Robuchon's legendary mashed potatoes, and Morning Glory (water spinach). This sappy dish helped us finishing our glass of Minervois in style.
There was a “Trou Normand” (lemon sherbet), like in the French “auberges”. This tradition, dating back from Escoffier and set back into fashion by Bocuse in the 1970s, is uncommon in Saigon. Though, there was no better way to gently clean our palate before enjoying “Liberation”. This is how Chef Bien poetically calls his desserts. Opportunely served on tasting portions, we had sweets from the North (refreshing “Lotus Seed Che”), the Central provinces (“Che Troi Nuoc”, ginger sticky rice, quite reminiscent of the Thai desserts), not to forget the South (“Coconut Che”, one of our preferred coconut milk specialties). The cherry on the cake was the unexpected wine pairing with late harvest wine, still relatively confidential in Vietnam: quite comparable with Hungarian Tokay, Chilean “Sauvignon Blanc, Maule Valley, Concha y Toro, 2012” seduced us with its Autumn flavors, and honey tones.
Xu is one of the top 10 best gastronomic restaurants that we experienced in Saigon, with a noticeable quality in term of wine pairing.
Dress code smart casual. No sandals, no singlets.
Open daily: 11:30am - midnight.
XU RESTAURANT LOUNGE: 71-75 Hai Ba Trung, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
PHONE: +84 28 3824 8468
RIO BRAZIL STEAKHOUSE (*****): Food, and particularly meat, is a cherished part of a Carioca's (resident of Rio de Janeiro) life. Originated from Amerindia, Africa, and Europe, the Brazilian epicurean traditions are part of the Saigonese gastronomic scene since less than a couple of years only, with its gourmet embassy located in the heart of the vibrant District 1.
We knew already the most established steakhouses in Saigon. El Gaucho, New York Steakhouse, Namo Tuscan Grill, Level 23 Signature... Rio still remains a discreet place, which had been warmly recommended to us by Vietnamese foodies. We couldn't leave Vietnam without stepping into the electric ambiance or Rio de Janeiro.
Located on the first floor of a residential building, we found the restaurant more cozy and quiet than we imagined. We still had in mind the noisy Brazilian pubs in Paris, and rather felt like in a lounge bar or supper club. The kind of place where you would invite your girlfriend for a gourmet romance. With elegant bossa nova notes filling the space, and a very nice view of the high-rise buildings all around, the dining room shows much distinction. The service is on par: anticipating, smiling, and perfectly efficient. Making the place both elegant and casual.
The «All you can eat» concept is applied by most of the «churrascarias» in Brazil. This is the preferred option at Rio Brazil Steakhouse. At VND 999,000 (around USD 40), it actually provides the most affordable and picturesque steak experience in town. And one of the best, both in term of quality and portions.
The experience starts with the buffet. It displays a profusion of fresh salads, vegetable to accompany the meat, delicatessen, and national specialties like Feijoada: rooted in African cuisine, it is made with meat (delicious pork ears) and black beans. We didn't take much from the buffet, as we knew that the steak experience would fill our hungry stomach.
The «churrascaria» meat-centric service follows the «Rodizio» method. The preparation of the meats is made by Brazilian chefs, following traditional recipes of seasoning and cooking in the charcoal fire. Guarantee better quality and flavor. A server, who worked for the best restaurants in Rio (like the world-famous Porcao), visited our table with different kinds of steaks imported from USA, Australia, and New Zealand.
Served with freshly baked «Pao de Queijo», traditional cheese bread, the beef is divided into portions of Picanha (top sirloin), Alcatra (rump steak) with a sappy cheese crisp, «Garlic Steak», and «Tenderloin with Bacon». We had also Prime Steak: aristocratic «Picanha Nobre» from Australian Angus Beef, one of the best meats on the menu, and Costela (short ribs) imported from the USA. The portions, cut directly into our plate by the chefs, were charcoal grilled, pinky and juicy inside... Simply perfect!
Pork features succulent Linguiça sausages, made by a German butcher based in Saigon, and Costela ribs BBQ with a hot sauce.
«Perna de Carneiro» (Leg of Lamb) is one of the best Brazilian specialties. The meat, imported from New Zealand, is exceptional.
We concluded with some poultry. «Coxa de Frango» (Chicken Tigh), «Coracao de Galinha» (Chicken Heart), and mouthwatering «Peito de Frango», com Bacon, Cebola, Pimentao (Chicken Breast with Bacon, Onion, Pepper). And some seafood: «Filet de Basa» (a very common, yet pleasantly textured fish from Vietnam), and exquisitely Brazilian «Camarao com Bacon».
«Grilled Pineapple» was the simplest and most adapted desert. Exceptionally fragrant, and very light after a dinner which looked more like a banquet. Another refreshing option is the yummy «Caipirinha Ice-Cream».
We have been lavishly treated with one bottle of «Alta Vista Alto, Mendoza, 2011» from Argentina. A complex combination of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, with rich notes of chocolate and red fruits. At VND 3,850,000 (USD 165) this is one of the treasures from the wine cellar, featuring also some young and fruity Bordeaux avaible from VND 175,000 (USD 8) only by the glass.
As Cariocas say : «-Muito Bom ! » (delicious).
Open 11am - 2pm (Monday - Friday), 5.30-11pm (everyday).
RIO BRAZIL STEAKHOUSE: 10A-10B Thái Văn Lung, Floor 2, Bến Nghé, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
PHONE: +84 90 905 66 92
SQUARE ONE (*****): A Top 20 Best Hotel Restaurants Around the World by Daily Meal, and One of 82 Hot Tables by Condé Nast Traveler, the atmospheric Square One restaurant at Park Hyatt Saigon is a place where West (France) meets East (Vietnam, of course). It has an attractive 3-course Daily Set Lunch menu (about USD 24), served in two different dining areas (plus three private rooms) displaying integrated open-kitchens. The cuisine is Vietnamese-French, with two distinctive chefs.
Alexandre Durand, much inspired by his mentor Alain Ducasse, manages the French team. His cuisine is "bistro-chic", featuring signature like "Duck Rillettes Toasts", as authentic as in Le Mans. Astonishingly affordable, at approximately USD 10. The same price more or less for the best "Paté en Croûte" in town. We loved the (a "bourgeoise" terrine, mixing pork and foie gras). We regret that the exquisite "Fish Quenelles en cocotte", has been deleted from the Summer menu. They made us feel like transported in a Michelin-starred "Bouchon" in Lyons... That was a good reason to pair it with a pleasant Gamay, "Saint-Amour, Cuvée Ensorceleuse" (USD 88), produced in the region by Ferraud and Fils.
Chef Tran Van Son cooked for us "Crispy Soft Shell Crab" with Garlic, Dried Shrimps, Chilli, and Rock Salt (USD 16). His aristocratic seafood platters and fish specialties feature Alaskan Black Cod, King Fish, Norwegian Salomon Steaks and superlative Lobsters. One of his best sellers is "Wok Live Canadian Lobster", Dried Seafood Sauce, Asparagus, Mushroom, Egg Noodles, and Chilli (USD 60). We paired it with well chilled, mineral "Sancerre, Pascal Jolivet" (USD 80), suggested by Marie, the charming French chef-sommelier. Some specialties from the Clay Pot are well worth the visit: like the Saigon Style US Scallops, Bok Choy, Onion, Tamarind Sauce, Coriander, and Sticky Rice (USD 27).
Before its 2018 splendid refurbishment, Square One was first of all reputed for being the first steakhouse in Saigon. It is still. Competing with well-established restaurants like El Gaucho, located next door, on serving the best imported meat in Vietnam. The most popular cuts of richly marbled and tender Australian Wagyu, delightfully flavored bites of US Grain Fed Angus, and all-natural grass fed Australian beef with a natural taste and texture are available from the charcoal grill.
Caviar must be oscietre! We had the opportunity to taste the local caviar De Duc during our repeated stays in Vietnam. It is succulent, available at Square One at USD 75 per 50gr.
We concluded our lunch with a "Whole Roasted Pineapple, Lemongrass Caramel, Coconut Sorbet" (USD 19). This yummy signature dish, prepared by the table, should be ordered in advance.
The silverware and Leglé Limoges plates have been lavishly designed specially for Square One.
The average bill for dinner is USD 60 - 90. Excluding wine, serve "a la ficelle" (by the measure), according to a tradition dating back from the 15th Century.
This glamorous restaurant features an outdoor terrace, plus four private dining rooms to cater to guests’ needs for special events. The bar at Square One showcases an extravagant selection of fine wines, fancy Champagne, and refreshing cocktails mixed with tropical fruits. It has one of the largest wine-cellar in Ho Chi Minh City.
code smart casual.
OPERA (*****): A top ten best restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City, located in the ritzy Park Hyatt Saigon, this contemporary trattoria with a touch of elegance opens to the street with a pleasant terrace where reservation is imperative: who wouldn’t dream of a relaxing lunch or dinner al fresco with a view of the colonial Opera House?
The new Chef de Cuisine Matteo Fracalossi, with 20 years of experience, improved his passion for cooking at Villa Crespi, trained by two-Michelin-star chef Antonino Cannavacciuolo. He then worked in the best restaurants around the world before he joined the ark Hyatt Saigon. Though his cuisine, prepared in the large open-kitchen, tends to be influenced by a cool Northern Italian influence, he is also an expert on pasta from Central Italy and authentic Neapolitan pizza, made fresh from a wood-fired oven.
ordered the “Business Lunch Set Menu”, available from Monday to Friday,
11:30am till 2:30pm. For approximately USD 20, which is great value for
a five-star hotel, we had three courses, with a selection of 4 -
5 dishes per course. We started with Fried Eggplant Roll, Chilled
Tomato Sauce and Basil Pesto. Light and perfumed, ideally accompanied
with lukewarm, mouth-watering focaccia bread sipped in artisanal
ultra-virgin olive oil. As a main, we were so happy to see that the
chef included one of our favorite pizzas, with Prosciutto Ham, Funghi
(mushrooms) and Mozzarella on a dispendious toping. The tomato sauce
was 100% home-made, and the paste was crispy and slightly burned as we
like. The portion would have been enough to feed two gourmets. This
pizza costed about USD10 on the extensive a
A small, good pizzeria in Saigon would charge more or less the same
paired our lunch with a bottle of Chianti Riserva Piccini Collezione
Oro 2011 (USD 60 / bottle). One serving of
freshly brewed coffee was included in the set price.
for lunch 11:30 am to 2:30 pm Monday to Saturday; 12:00 pm to 3:00 pm
Sunday. Dinner daily, 6:00 pm - 10:30 pm
CORSO STEAKHOUSE & BAR (*****): One more steakhouse reviewed in Saigon? Not exactly. Though steaks at Corso are worth the visit, UK Chef Daniel Woodbridge's cuisine is so reputed that he also treats the most demanding millionaires not far from here... by private jet: at the paradisiac Six Senses Con Dao Resort, the first five-star resort in Vietnam's archipelago islands. Daniel shares his time between this exotic hideaway and his urban steakhouse, exporting to Saigon his passion for seafood gained from his experience in prestigious resorts around the world: from England, Australia to Bali and now Vietnam.
Daniel's most premium cooking methods results into a bistro-chic cuisine inspired by local ingredients, with eye and mouth catching sensations which we experience only a few times per year inspecting the best restaurants in town. Though he is a British cooking with a Vietnamese team, his cuisine is not fusion. Which is a compliment... It is rather...let's say: Woodbridgian. And we loved it.
We didn't experience the restaurants as guests (we shall do soon for further developments on the exciting menu), but on the opportunity of a private banquet introducing the skills of the chef to the Saigon high-society. Daniel treated us with some of his signatures, assisted by one of the best waiters and sommeliers. All locals, but so much involved in their job. Trained to serve and please the most demanding patrons.
The five-course experience started with “Seared Foie Gras”, with Apple, Pear, Saffron Chutney, and Toasted Brioche. Replacing the traditional fig with Apple and Pear was a perfect match. The liver, served at the ad hoc temperature, melted in the mouth. It was paired conveniently: not the “Bourgeois” way, but like in the Southeast of France, with a full-bodied wine: “Table Mountain 2018, Cabernet Sauvignon, Western Cape, South Africa”. Plush & full-bodied, with hints of oak spice, rich bouquet of blackcurrant & cherry aromas with hints of mocha. This is a Corso's best seller with steaks. “Ramirana 2016, Cabernet Sauvignon, Valle Central, Chile” was another good pairing suggested by the Chef; a popular label in Chile, scarcely exported, this is not a grand wine, yet astonishingly pleasant to the palate in a tropical country.
“Green Pea & Asparagus Soup”, with premium quality Seared Japanese Scallops, ideally textured, and Citrus Gremolata, tasted like the kiss of an angel. Sweet, as Saigon people like, the alliance of UK (pea) and Japan (scallops) was faultless. We would have ordered Sancerre or Entre-Deux Mers for a dreamed pairing. But Corso focuses more on the wine from the New World. “President's Selection, 2016, Wolf Blass, Gold Label, Chardonnay, South Australia”, lacked the French minerality and style. Buttery, relying on the interplay of oak and fruit, forming a complex, honeyed character, it nevertheless did the job quite well.
Corso has an good selection of premium steaks a la carte. A favorite, Australian “Margaret River Wagyu Striploin MB4”, served medium rare with Fondant Potatoes, Heirloom Carrots (from Dalat), Wild Mushrooms, and a sappy Black Truffle Jus, came with a slim cut comparable to the French steaks. Very different from the generally thick US aged meat served in District 1 high-end grills. More comparable to the popular Parisian “Bifteck”. We shall certainly order the same meat next time we visit Corso. As recommended by Daniel, we paired it with “The Lane, Block 14, 2018, Basket Press Shiraz, South Australia”. Excellent! Elegantly perfumed, with intense red fruits, subtle white pepper and a complex core of ripe tannins.
This opulent wine also paired the “Cheese Platter”: Mimolette, Blue Cheese, Brie de Meaux, with dried fruits and crackers, it could have been more inventive, like at La Villa or L'Escale. But don't forget that Corso is a steakhouse, and that we never experienced Maroilles, Roquefort or Chavignol in that category of restaurant outside France. Just suggesting to Daniel that the demanding Six Senses Con Dao Resort might expect French AOP cheese.
The selection of desserts was perfect and light enough to conclude this banquet almost worth Curnonsky... “Triple Chocolate Brownie with Banana Caramel” and “Vanilla Ice-Cream” were yummy enough to let us find some space for them in our already full stomach...
The daily offer is fitting all budgets, making this great steakhouse one of the most visited restaurants in Saigon.
Open everyday, 6 am - 11 pm. Dress code smart casual.
CORSO STEAKHOUSE & BAR (at Norfolk Hotel): 117 Lê Thánh Tôn, Bến Nghé, District 1, Hồ Chí Minh (Saigon), Vietnam
PHONE: +84 28 3829 5368
CÔTE D'AZUR (*****): Classic, classy, romantic and... so French! Don't be fooled by the odd, yet central and picturesque location of this bistro-chic. District 1 has plenty of more visible restaurants, strategically situated in the triangle of gold around Vincom and the five stars hotels. But Côte D'Azur tucks away from the crowd, in a tiny lane which only the intrepid foodie can find. Seating in the neutral yet pleasant, canteen-like dining room at the ground floor, or in the romantic first-floor room, comes like a reward.
Ready for experiencing a top 5 best French restaurant in Saigon!
We loved everything at Côte d'Azur. This is one of those restaurants in which you step in, and say: “-We shall come back!”. The ambiance is exquisite, with discreet and smart patrons. The table is elegant, with flowers, nice china crockery, flat silver, and crystal glasses. The staff meets the best of France and Vietnam. Anticipating and naturally kind, Kathy, “maîtresse de maison” and wine steward, is a synthesis of elegance and efficiency. She has that soft voice which puts you in appetite.
Chef Le Nhat Dong is a reference in Saigon. The owner of the restaurant, he is an enthusiastic gastronome, so excited to share his passion with his guests. Just like a small elite of Vietnamese chefs, followers of Escoffier, he knows the French “terroir” better than anybody. Using for his recipes the best imported French ingredients (and finest wines), mixed with prime quality local products. A long experience at Le Bordeaux (another reference in Saigon), a dozen of years at Côte D'Azur, some teaching by world famous chefs like two-Michelin-star Philippe Etchebest, made Le Nhat Dong an icon of French gastronomy in Vietnam.
Our lunch started with a “Canadian Oyster”, fresh lime, salmon caviar, mignonette... and grated cheese! Our Vietnamese companion poured it over the shell, which seems to be a surprising Asian way to enjoy this naturally fishy and refreshing shell. Its aphrodisiac virtues do a lot for its popularity. It came with the best bread ever, served warm with salted butter. Paired with one flute of Freixenet Cava: the number one Spanish sparkling wine.
Another favorite, both in France and Vietnam: the “Foie Gras Terrine”. What a perfect texture! Incorporating Sauterne and Calvados, this chilled duck liver (imported from Maison Rougié, France), was served with an interesting Chilly Jam. A master in "foie gras", indeed, the chef also knows how to elegantly display it on the plate. The French way. Very Michelin. A great dish, with poppy seeds bread and one glass of Sauterne “Château du Levant, 2012”. A classic sweet wine, with plenty of honeyed flavors and stone fruit.
Back to Vietnam, with a crunchy, palatable “Black Tiger Prawn” from Nha Trang. Chef Le Nhat Dong second specialty after "foie gras" and before meat, seafood is a best seller at Côte d'Azur. Perfect: iodized, fishy, with seafood bouillon poaching, zucchini, bacon, sweet pepper and natural jus. Kathy managed an ad hoc pairing, with South African “Culemborg Chenin Blanc, 2016”, light, fruity, very reminiscent of the Loire wine from France. It is, like the Sauterne, available by the glass at a most reasonable price (around USD 5 for Chenin Blanc, and 11USD for Sauterne).
Though, the actually unforgettable wine that brilliant day was “La Salle de Château Poujeaux, Moulis-en-Médoc 2007, Philippe Cuvelier” (around USD 70 by the bottle). Close by location and quality to the legendary Château Latour, this exceptional Cru Bourgeois was the enlightenment of this luminous gastronomic experience. Savory and classic, this Haut-Médoc has it all. This is what we like to call a 3D wine: all the senses are satisfied by such a nectar, which paired the exceptional “Oven Roasted Duck Breast”. Imported from a bio-farm in the Mekong Delta, the game was served medium rare. Juicy, flavorful, with a great texture. A pure delicacy perfumed with a pinch of oriental spices, accompanied with its “foie gras” panned over a mouth-watering crust of spices. An absolute signature dish, with jus of Granny Smith, acacia honey (what a pairing with the duck liver!), golden raisins, and a full blend rhubarb from Dalat.
This Epicurean experience, brilliant and pleasant, with a regular visit of the chef to the tables, inquiring about his guests' impressions and special requirements, concluded in style with a “Bitter Sweet Chocolate Cake”. Demonstrating that the local cocoa tastes as powerful as premium French Valrhona, with a raspberry (from Dalat also), and a classy sabayon steeped in Armagnac, vanilla ice-cream.
The average bill, with wine by the glass, is USD 100 – 150 / person “a la carte”, with a very attractive “Business Lunch” (approximately USD 15 the day of our visit, in May 2017).
We shall keep a close eye on this exceptional table, as it might probably be transferred to another address in the near future. Maybe in a restored colonial building, to give this authentic French restaurant an upgraded touch of class.
Dress code casual smart.
Open daily, 9 – 1:30 pm and 5 –9:30 pm.
Updated note: The restaurant is temporarily closed until its extension and relocation scheduled end of 2019.
CÔTE D'AZUR: 12T3 Street, Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, Da Kao, Saigon, Vietnam
PHONE: +84 8 3911 5473
SHANG PALACE (*****): We recently discovered the authentic Cantonese and Hong Kong cuisine served in this casual-chic restaurant, targeting corporate guests and families alike. Our first experience concentrated mostly on the excellent, fairly priced Dim-Sum selection, offered either by the all-you-can-eat buffet (VND 428,000 / USD 16,5 ++), featuring 43 choices of dishes with complimentary Chinese tea. Or a la carte, by generous baskets containing three or four dumplings, served steamed or deep-fried.
We shortly expected our first dish, “Beijing Soup”, a classic, richly livened up with seafood, nibbling succulent Nuts Grilled with Sesame Seeds, observing the well-patronized room. The elegant multilingual waiters (most of them can speak English, Chinese, and of course Vietnamese), and the charming hostesses managed a most pleasant, faultless service. Contrary to many upscale Chinese restaurants, Shang Palace enjoys natural light from the large windows with an animated street view. This a bonus for Westerners; Asian people don't mind that kind of detail: just concentrating on their plate. Moreover when the cuisine is splendid!
There were not less than 18 steamed Dim Sum on the menu. Classic ones (which are also the cheapest at VND 55,000 / USD 2,3 ++) are usually available by the buffer. We found them ideally textured, tasty, and served at the right temperature. “Shanghainese Pork Dumplings” and “Steamed Chicken & Mushroom Buns” are worth the visit. More unique signatures are only available a la carte, at VND 75,000 / USD 3,3 ++, until VND 90,000 / USD 3,9 ++ for “Steamed Beef Honeycomb with Chu Hou Sauce”. Only served in a few Chinese restaurants in Saigon, this chewy delicacy oddly tastes to the Western gourmet. In the same register, “Steamed Beef Tripe with Ginger & Spring Onion” is another favorite.
Deep-fried / Baked dumplings were mouth-watering! We recommend “Deep-Fried Prawn Cheese Rolls”, as crispy and yummy as “Pan-fried Chives & Prawn Dumplings”.
As a dessert, we had a crush on “Glutinous Sesame Rice Balls in Ginger Syrup” (in the same price range like the Dim Sum: VND 70,000 / USD 3 ++).
We shall come back soon for Beijing Duck, reputed one of the best in town.
The average check is under VND 580,000 / USD 25 ++, making Shang Palace one of the best value gastronomic Chinese restaurants in the touristic and central District 1.
Open for Lunch: 10:30am – 2:00pm Monday – Saturday, and 10:30am – 2:30pm Sundays and Public Holidays. Dinner: 5:00pm – 10:00pm daily. Dress code smart casual.
SHANG PALACE (at Norfolk Mansion): 17-19-21 Ly Tu Trong Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Viet Nam
PHONE: +84 28 3822 6111, 3824 1835
BISTRO SÔNG VIE (*****): Our gastronomic
experience in this awesome restaurant with a terrace along the River
Saigon was to die for.
From the extravagant à la carte breakfast, till the candlelit dinner,
we have experienced a technical perfection by the recently appointed Singaporean Chef Jeremy Choo, and much kindness from
part of the
enthusiastic waiters. The owner of the best Thai restaurant in
Singapore, Jeremy is a disciple of Pierre Gagnaire. An
expert in French gastronomy, importer of French wine in Singapore, he
impressed us by selecting the most appropriate wine, pairing a
succulent French cuisine. Making Bistro Song Vi a top five best French
restaurants in Saigon. In this part of District 2, only La
Villa can compete, indeed.
Steak” is totally unique, with “Valrhona 66% Cocoa”
chocolate sauce. Odd? Not at all. Escoffier invented the recipe more
than one century ago. Cocoa is a spice, and it matches well some meats
like beef, “Coq Au Vin”, or “Rabbit Stew”. It was accompanied with
organic vegetables from the cool gardens of Dalat:
the most fragrant baby carrots and mushrooms. Have it with one glass of
“McGuigan Estate Shiraz 2011, South Australia” (for its note of
chocolate, over blackcurrants and further red fruits). Those liking
more sophistication and a glamorous note should rather order “Château
du Vieux Parc Corbière, 2012, Guy Panis, Languedoc-Roussillon”. Produce
of the French terroir, made in oak barrels, this is an elegant, complex
wine, with a beautiful balance of red berry fruit and oak on the palate.
Dress code casual.Open for Breakfast: 6.00am – 10.30am. Lunch / Dinner: 11.30am – 10.00pm
YU CHU (****L): Those who can't find time to explore the magic and gastronomic Chinese district of Cholon, a city in the city spreading over D5 and D6, still can enjoy a real Cantonese cuisine in the central and historic D1. During our awesome stay at InterContinental Asiana, there were two things which we could miss: the superb Club Lounge, and Yu Chu: a Top 10 Cantonese restaurants in Saigon.
Most of the Western foodies speaking of “Chinese cuisine” usually refer to specialties from Yue, Guangdong, and Guangzhou Cantonese provinces.Well balanced and not greasy, Cantonese cuisine uses rapid cooking methods, like stir-frying, and steaming / double steaming for Dim Sum, for instance. We could eat dozens of those small bite-sized portions of food served in small steamer baskets (or on small plates, when deep-fried). In Cantonese teahouses, carts with Dim Sum will be served in the restaurant for diners to order from without leaving their seats. At Yu Chu, we rather made our choice from the special menu, featuring a cornucopia of dumplings.
We are in a palace hotel. Some of the offers are therefore five-star also. Dim Sum filled with ultra fresh scallops are a delicacy, with a twist of teriyaki or soy sauce. Cheaper options, filled with steamed squids or shrimp/spinach, is alternatively original and tasty. That was the first time we had been proposed “Steam Duck Dim Sum”: melting in the mouth, and well worth the try. That was one of our favorites, with the exquisite “Pork / Crab Roe Siu Mai”: an open ravioli, “Siu Mai” is generously available on the menu, steamed or deep-fried, super crispy. We concluded our “Dim Sum” degustation with “fried-steamed-fried” “Beijing Potstickers” medium-sized dumplings, usually eaten in two to three bites. Fairly thick wrapped crispy on the outside, while still being soft and encasing the juicy filling inside, “Potstickers” is an interesting alternative to the traditional “Dim Sum”.
Desserts are plentiful. From the classic “Steamed Egg Yolk Buns”: specialty from Sichuan, those whealthy custard buns, locally named “Lai Wong Bao”, come with a particularly sweet filling. Those looking for a lighter, more tropical alternative should order the signature “Mango & Grapefruit Cream”.
We have been positively surprised by the good value for money for our satisfactory gourmet experience in such a fancy place. The “All You Can Eat Dim Sum lunch offer was VND 498,000++/ person including Chinese Kungfu Pu Er Tea iced tea/ hot tea. Slightly more expensive for dinner, at VND 598,000++/ person.
Dress code casual.
YU CHU (at INTERCONTINENTAL ASIANA SAIGON:): Hai Bà Trưng, Bến Nghé, Hồ Chí Minh, Bến Nghé Quận 1 Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
PHONE: +84 8 3520 9099, +84 8 3520 9999 FACSIMILE: +84 8 3520 9955
LE CORTO (****L): Saigon is not a city for established restaurants. Open a new one, if you are a good chef with a note of originality, and if the location close to the premium hotels is strategic, then it just can be a success story from the very beginning. It took the young and ambitious Sakal Phoeung less than one year to develop one of the premium five-star French restaurants in the competitive District 1. His partners designed one of the most elegant, lounge style dining-rooms, while he invested in hiring the best staff to provide a top class service to the new generation of local gourmets: young, rich, open minded and focusing on the best products from the best origins, often more expert in wine than most of the European, Saigon has got a hard to please elite of foodies. They all come to Le Corto.
French with Cambodian origins, living in South East Asia since 2000, Chef Sakal is as atypical as his cuisine. He learned from Michelin star chefs at “Le Bateau Ivre”, “Château de Candie”, joined the difficult and very academic luxury hotel industry at “Sofitel Phokeetra Phnom Penh” and “Sofitel Plaza Saigon”. From his mentors, he inherited skill and tradition (he is the President of Escoffier Vietnam and a member of L’Académie Culinaire de France), and let his imagination do the rest. And the rest is just splendid!
Chef Sakal is always ready to talk to his guests, and spend some time with them chatting at the bar before diner. We have seen Daniel Boulud in New York or Paul Bocuse in Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or doing the same. His staff has been well trained, and can do the job until he goes back to the kitchen. He knows that Veronika, the divine and experienced Russian “maîtresse de maison” (this is how we call a luxury restaurant manager in France, when she is a lady), will take great care of the VIP guests (which means 100% of the patrons) assisted by a remarkable staff (mostly feminine, like in many restaurants in Vietnam).
Our dinner started in style with “Caviar Le Duc over Minced Crab”: a fishy and richly iodized amuse-bouche. We love caviar, and are lucky enough to experience the best brands from the best origins. Sounding like French, Le Duc actually doesn’t refer to caviar from Gironde or Sologne, but to a new local production by Le Anh Duc’s sturgeon farm, at the Da Mi hydroelectric reservoir lake, in Tanh Linh District, Vietnam's central southern province of Binh Thuan. This was exciting to experience one of the first 100% Vietnamese harvests, indeed. The savor is rich, not too salted. Better that Russian caviar, though a little bit less textured, it is far superior to the Chinese production which we experienced in some Michelin star restaurants. At about $5,000 a kilo for Beluga, Le Duc also produces super rare Albino caviar which can sell for up to $100,000 per kilogram!
Keeping with fish and refinement, we ordered a so fresh “Raw Scallops, Marinated Salmon Steak, Avocado Purée Trio, Wasabi sauce”. This is a season dish, a la carte in June / July, with a strong Japanese influence. It was ideally paired by Veronika, an expert in wine, with “De Bortoli, Riverina” (USD 7 / glass), a young generic Chardonnay from a small vineyard establish in the 1920s in Bilbul, North-South Wales, Australia. Signature fish dishes feature “Grilled Squid and Prawns with Herbs and Salsa”, or “Oven Seared Catch of the Day, Sautéed Vegetables”. Most of those seafood dishes are fairly priced, at around USD 10 till 15.
Goose / Duck liver is a must in a gourmet restaurant in Saigon. Sakal is reaching perfection with one of his best specialties: “Pan Fried Foie Gras Lasagna, Wild Mushrooms, Black Truffles Foam” (USD 18). Playing with aromas and textures, he achieved an Oscar worthy recipe inspired by Escoffier. The wine, inspired by Veronika, was a “Côtes-du-Rhône, Oraison” (USD 38 / bottle). Soft, balanced, with a pleasant finish, served directly from the cellar at 12°, this is an ideal pairing with the truffle strong essence. Moreover, it brings a light, refreshing note, always welcome under a tropical climate. Another inspiring signature main dish, which we shall straightly order next time: the so-French “Veal Sweetbreads with Mushrooms and Crushed Potatoes”. At only USD 22, we are in the standard price in a small bistro in Paris. Another fairly priced bistro fare: we would warmly recommend Sakal’s tender and juicy “Black Angus Beef Fillet with Black Pepper” (USD 22). We cleaned our plate with one piece of the delicious freshly baked bread presented by the waitress with each dish. We finished our glass of Côte-du-Rhone with our grilled beef; alternatively if could be nicely paired with “Banfi Col Di Sasso”, from Tuscany, Italy (USD 23 / glass).
Our dessert was “Iced Nougat, Red Fruits Sauce”, perfectly aromatic and actually yummy. You can also taste the surprising “Liquorice Crème Brûlée, with Coffee Ice Cream”. Most sweets cost USD 9.
This promising gastronomic restaurant proposes a money saving set lunch at USD 8 (2 courses) and USD 11 (3 courses), including tea or coffee.
Open for lunch 11am - 2:30pm. Dinner 5pm - 11pm.
LE CORTO: 5D Nguyen Sieu, Ben Nghe ward, District 1,
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
PHONE: +84 8 38220671
BASILICO (****L): Located next to the standard, plain-Jane Starbucks-like pubs and standard eateries housed in the InterContinental Asiana complex, Basilico brings a touch of class and a touch of gastronomy to one of our preferred hotels in Saigon. A trattoria, it doesn't transport you in Milan or Naples as well as a smaller Italian bistro would do. Too large. Too luxury. But it perfectly does the job in term of quality, for quite a honest value.Though not as brilliant as Theo Mio, in InterContinental Bangkok, it locally plays in the same category as Namo Tuscan Grill. A good reference in Saigon. Pizza is considered as one in the best in town, in competition with the prestigious -and pricey- Opera, at the Park Hyatt, and there is a good selection of pasta.
We wished to make our first experience more corporate and cost related than 100% gastronomic, as Basilico is a favorite for casual business lunch in District 1. The 3 courses Set Menu, at approximately USD 20, sells like hotcakes. It looked awesome, though not featuring pizza the day of our visit. We shall order it next time, just to compare it with the fantastic one enjoyed at Opera the same week.
Starters were light and rather corporate: “Insalata di Tonno”, “Ceasar Salad”, or “Caprese” which we found fresh and refined, with a prime quality Buffalo Mozzarella, seasoned with sun-ripened tomatoes, fresh basil, and a fragrant extra virgin olive oil “D.O.C” (label determinating a regional product). The main course was more interesting, more gourmet oriented, and varied with a choice of five dishes. Except the quite international “Pan Roasted Chicken”, the rest consisted of tempting regional specialties. Two were typically trattoria-style: “Amatriciana” (Pancetta bacon, with spicy tomato sauce and Pecorino Romano cheese), and the succulent “Manzo Brasata Di Vino Rosso”. Actually a USDA beef shank stew, with vegetable, and mashed potatoes. Aromatic, melting in the mouth, this is a signature dish. We paired it with one glass of “Rivo Al Poggio, Castello Banfi, IGT”: a full and soft, balanced, easy-to-drink mid-range red wine from Tuscany, with fresh and pleasant fruity notes (14 USD).
Desserts couldn't be more Italian: “Panna Cotta”, or “Tiramisu”. Rich and creamy, served in a cup, covered with crisps of white chocolate, this had been paired with a strong shot of “Ristretto” coffee.
We spent less than USD 40 in a top 10 best Italian restaurants in Saigon, and could say to the chef: “Ritorneremo”!
BASILICO: (at INTERCONTINENTAL ASIANA SAIGON): Hai Bà Trưng, Bến Nghé, Hồ Chí Minh, Bến Nghé Quận 1 Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
PHONE: +84 8 3520 9999 FACSIMILE: +84 8 3520 9955
EL GAUCHO (****L): This is always surprising to see how Asian people are fond of steakhouses. If for French or American enjoying a good sirloin or rib eye steak in a bistro sounds like a pleasant middle-class routine, it comes in Asia with such a chic image. Imported meat is expensive, and enjoying it remains a real privilege. El Gaucho is new, but already one of the leading restaurants in Saigon. Things go fast in this developing, refined city: you win (or you lose) fast, depending on the mouth to ear and reviews in the magazines. Once at our hotel, Park Hyatt, opposite the restaurant, we inquired to the concierge, management, and even F&B, asking which was the best steakhouse in District 1. The response was always the same: “-You should try El Gaucho or Stoker!”.
Don’t dine alone in a steakhouse of that class. Bring a Saigonese friend. There are many chances that he/she already heard of this place, which he/she maybe cannot afford; treating an educated person in such a reputed restaurant shall bring you some bonuses, either in term of business or love… We have seen how Vietnamese can be excessively gourmet. Sometimes more than French or Italian. The reaction of our partner at El Gaucho was like orgasmic.
First of all, the restaurant is trendy. Modern, elegant, comfortable, with great local and international staff. Waiters are amongst tche most enthusiastic which we have seen during our long gastronomic tour of Southeast Asia. The concept “El Gaucho” started so sucessfully in Thailand (Bangkok), that the Saigon franchise has developed a four levels concept to host more patrons with more comfort. We were quite attracted by the large, little more formal dining room opening to a smoking terrace with a view on the animated Hai Ba Trung street. But David, the young and active owner, suggested that the ground-floor bar would be more animated on a weekday. We sat at the bar, and enjoyed one of the most friendly and remarkable meat dinners in our gourmet life.
What is important to us, and this is what motivated us to experience El Gaucho: the chef only uses beef from cattle that are handled, fed and treated according to the strict animal welfare guidelines, raised in non-stress environments and at no point exposed to antibiotics or hormones. This is guaranteed and written black on white on the menu. Few steakhouses are providing to their guests such healthy, prime quality beef from the best Australian and American farms. Reaching the highest marble scores and grading, the hand-cut and hand trimmed meat is carefully aged in a cold storage to fully develop the flavor and tenderness for a fantastic melt in our mouth. Note that it is 100% Halal certified.
We ordered our beef by the weight. It goes up to 1000 grams by the portion! Unless you are an ogre, keep with the smallest, 250 grams steaks, and don’t miss the extraordinary side dishes, from the classic French Fries till the gourmand Macaroni and Cheese, Sautéed Onions or wonderful Corn on Cob, nor the to-die-for sauces (we recommend the spicy BBA Sauce and the Wild Mushroom Sauce ). We had a thick, medium rare Black Angus Filet Steak, juicy, tender, with such a rich taste. Our partner was like magnetized by her USDA Prima Rib Eye Steak, melting almost like butter. At approximately USD 40 (plus 10% VAT), that was not cheap on the local standard. The side dishes came in a generous portion at USD 4 till 7 only! What sounded odd was the fact that they charge for the sauces (around USD 4 - 5). We were suggested to try just a bit of the homemade Salchicha (a good starter at an affordable USD 8). This spicy sausage, tasting like North African “merguez”, is permanently on sale at El Gaucho butcher’s shop, located opposite to the bar. The price of the all cleaned and trimmed beef, lamb and pork is attractive (the Salchicha costs USD 22 / Kg; USDA Prime Beef goes for USD 77 / Kg, plus 10% VAT). El Gaucho is also reputed for its pastas (try the Spaghetti with Chorizo Bolognese, at USD 15), fish (Grilled Tasmanian Salmon is a signature, at USD 24). We enjoyed the creamy “Provoleta”: grilled Provolone cheese, tomato, with a hint of oregano and olive oil (USD 10). The Caesar Salad, rich on Parmesan, is considered one of the best in Saigon (USD 10).
We have been quite impressed by the wine list. Updated with the best brands from Argentina, Chile, Spain, Australia and the USA, all quite overpriced, it featured a more than decent Argentinean Malbec at USD 8 by the glass, nicely pairing our meat.
Impossible to leave El Gaucho without tasting the Hot Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Ice Cream, or the so divine Argentinean Dulce De Leche in Crepe with Vanilla Ice Cream. Most of the desserts cost less than 9 USD. If you are smiling and friendly, the staff might offer you a glass of signature iced Vodka Caramel, pairing so well the Dulce de Leche.
The best compliment about El Gaucho was pronounced by our partner: “-We shall come back?”. The restaurants has a lot of regular patrons, who obviously all got the same reaction.
Opening hours: Daily from 11 am until late.
EL GAUCHO: 74/1 Hai Ba Trung, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1,
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
PHONE: +84 8 38 272 090
NEW YORK STEAKHOUSE (****L): With a menu quite similar the one at the legendary Gallaghers or Keens, plus the design and classy atmosphere of a supper club, reminding us a lot of Benjamin or the much regretted Bruno Jamais' Upper East Side eccentric eatery, it just costs the price of a Ceasar Salad or a Sirloin at the NYSH to feel like in Manhattan.
The smiling face of the discreet staff, and a dining room globally patronized by Vietnamese, are the unique references to Asia. OK, Hervé, the owner, is French; but he spent so many years in the USA with Accor hospitality, that nobody could distinguish him from an American. Steak (pizza, French cheese...) is something any expatriate or long-stay visitor needs to alternatively experience at least once a month. We, therefore, decided to visit the New York Steakhouse when we started dreaming of a juicy Tournedos or a savory Sirloin...
Located in District 1, the culinary center of Saigon since the nostalgic years of the French Protectorate, the building housing the NYSH, with its round shaped pavilion, is a perfect replica of a Madison or Bowery brownstone. The bar, with its cushioned red leather seats, and 1920s neon-clock, is awesome. The disposition of the tables, with high banquettes, in conformity with the plans of an American steakhouse, provides comfort and glamour. Making the dining room ideal for business and romance alike. A higher level of intimacy awaits the guest at the cozy first floor. We noted a small terrace to smoke a cigar (a good selection of Cuban “puros” is available in Hervé's "humidor").
Now, what about the cuisine? We would say that what makes the difference between this restaurant and its very few competitors (Saigon counts less than ten authentic steakhouses) is its specialty of dry-aged beef, from the best US origin. Aging process gives the meat more depth and flavor. After experiencing two months aged beef and game in Central Europe, which would be far too much for an Asian palate, we found in comparison the 21 days aged “New-York Sirloin Steak” tasting like the excellent steaks which we order with French Fries in a Parisian bistro. What made it superlatively American was the way it had been grilled; We could feel the unmatched savor of the charcoal. Really a perfect cooking method, which only El Gaucho can match.
Never forget that Asian gourmets prefer well-done meat. Local cooks always increase the cooking time by one or two minutes, according to the order. Those liking medium-rare should order rare instead. This is a trick which should be used in most of the steakhouses in Asia. We liked the size (250 gr) and the thickness of the Sirloin. That wasn't a surprise in Southeast Asia, it was a little bit pricey (approximately USD 30), but the side dishes were actually cheap... and palatable. About USD 5 for a generous portion of “Sauteed Garlic Haricot Vert”, and USD 8 for the recommended “Creamy Truffles Spinach”. A delicacy!
Besides the “New York Sirloin”, signature dishes feature the giant “Large to Share, Surf & Turf”, and the classy 500 gr “Chateaubriand”. All meats are served with a selection of refined sauces, spices, and herbs, not to forget four kinds of artisanal mustards. A set of different blade engraved knives, from the simple butcher knife with its natural wood handle to the chic Laguiole, is presented to the table. Which we found both practical and stylish.
There is a large selection of wine for all budget, and featuring “grand crus”. Select your preference from an iPad featuring over one hundred brands. Or do like us, straightly order house wine, by the glass: we paired our lunch with and excellent, oaky “Geiser Tatio Reserva Carmenere”, Chile at only USD 7.
Desserts are as sweet as American pastries can be. We would recommend the yummy “Chocolate Truffes”, served with Vanilla Ice Cream (USD 5).
Those living in Saigon should join, free of charge, the NYSH Silver Club and be entitled to two monthly silver nights with discount up to 25 %. Making this distinguished steakhouse actually affordable.
NEW YORK STEAKHOUSE: 25-27 Nguyen Dinh Chieu St.Dakao Ward, Dist. 1, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
PHONE: +84 8 38 23 73 73
NAMO TUSCAN GRILL (****L): Italy is so close to Saigon now. A few meter from the City Hall and the statue of “Uncle Ho”, just behind the Rex Hotel, this contemporary yet authentic trattoria brings the savors of Tuscany in the heart of District 1. Chef Ivan Barone invited us to “A Journey Through Tuscany”: name of the classic and classy tasting menu (USD 50 per person, served to a minimum of 2), featuring a mouth-watering introduction to some of the best specialties from the leading gastronomic destination in Italy.
The restaurant is definitely on the high-end side. If Western foodies will notice and appreciate the cool display of the room, the refined decoration (we dreamed we could drive away riding the vintage Vespa exhibited next to the entrance) making it “Italiano, ma non troppo”, and the open kitchen, our local companion was rather impressed by the exclusive aspect of what remains for Vietnamese an exclusive venue. Quite comparable to the contemporary restaurants in Milan or Rome, which sacrificed the vaulted walls and stained glasses of the old-style trattorias to modern trend with space and light. A restaurant where you can see the marvels that Chef Ivan lovingly cooks for a savant mixture of Vietnamese and Western patrons.
The appetizer couldn't be more traditional: the “Tuscan Tasting Board” is a great mise-en-bouche featuring Chicken Liver Paté, Cod Fish Croquette, Beans, and Meatballs. Only Soppressata was missing to make it 100% “a la Mamma”. Served with an appealing selection of freshly baked bread. That pleasant first step in Italy has been nicely paired with one of Robert Parker's favorite (89 points!) Tuscan wines, originated from one of the peninsula most prestigious vineyard areas: “Digia Bolgheri D.O.C. 2014, Batzella”. An alchemist mixture of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Cabernet Franc, this well textured, pleasantly refreshing nectar is available by the glass at USD 14. A good surprise for a great pairing.
A hard decision had to be taken with the first course. “Tuscan Ragout Pici”, one of our favorite dishes, or aromatic “Truffle Tagliatelle”? We ordered both and shared two different concepts of the “pasta”: popular vs aristocratic. The ragout might provide more satisfaction to foodies non-initiated yet to the peninsular cuisine...but the tagliatelle can't be missed: with sautéed forest mushroom, and aromatic black truffle, whose natural fragrance has undoubtedly be emphasized by the addition of a subtle note of truffle oil or essence, this dish is as simple as unforgettable. We had it nicely paired with a classic: “Banfi Cum Laude 2012, Castello Banfi”. A “Super Tuscan” cuvée from the golden terroir of the Montalcino Hills, awarded 92points from James Suckling. Boosting aromas of black fruits and gingerbread, with powerful tannins, this is an ad hoc wine with truffles (also fantastic with meat and some cheese). Price by the glass was USD 17. By the bottle, we recommend “Pinot Grigio Friuli IGT 2015, Bandut Colutta” (USD 38). Totalizing 88 points from Wine & Spirit, this is a good choice which could eventually pair the rest of the dinner.
A Tuscan oasis, Namo is also reputed for serving the best steaks in Saigon. This is one of the reasons why we wished to experience that double concept Italian plus steakhouse, and compare it with elder brothers like El Gaucho, which we liked a lot, and where booking a table last minute sounds quite challenging. For a supplement of approximately USD 30 for 2 persons, we got the best T-bone ever! The “Bistecca Fiorentina” weights a minimum of 800 kilograms. Marinated during a minimum of two weeks in Whisky, cooked medium rare, it came pink, juicy, but not bloody, thanks to the marination preserving all the vitamins. Melting in the mouth, procuring orgasm to the red meat lover, this signature dish is such a best seller that Namo holds a “Bistecca Fiorentina Night” every Wednesday, priced at approximately USD 100 for two, including a free flow of Banfi red wines and Sapporo beer. We shall try on our next visit the “Rib Eye Tagliata”, which was another choice on the Tasting Menu. The side dish is important with steak: a Tuscan Mamma couldn't roast the potatoes better that “il maestro” Ivan. We recommend “Farnito 2011, Carpineto” for a fair pairing. With 91 points from Wine & Spirit, this savant “Baby Super Tuscan” wine, made entirely with Cabernet Sauvignon, opens with aromas of toasted oak, scorched earth, underbrush and a balsamic whiff of eucalyptus. This was our preferred wine, at USD 14. Compared with international hotels and restaurants of its category, Namo serves really attractive wine at an honest price.
At that stage, we had already full stomach, and the refreshing homemade Limoncello was the final, light note to our definitely successful -and affordable- journey to Tuscany.
Dress code smart casual. Open daily, 11am - 10:30pm (11:00pm week end and public holidays).
NAMO TUSCAN GRILL: 146-148 Pasteur, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
PHONE: +84 8 3822 1431
THE OLIVE STEAKHOUSE (****): That was a bit challenging to find this delightful small restaurant, though it can't have a better location, indeed. In front of Caravelle Hotel, next to the Opera House, in the most legendary street of the old Saigon: Dong Khoi. It is nostalgically housed in a French 1890s landmark building that was once the «Belle-Epoque» Catinat-Ciné, decorated with intriguing mosaics, and featuring also some apartments and workshops converted into restaurants, art shops, and teahouses.
The Olive Steakhouse opened one and a half years ago only, on the second floor. Next to L'Usine: which helps a lot to find the place, as the name of this large and well-known brasserie predominates over the façade of the building.
Designed like a French canteen, it looks different from its plush competitors. No dark color, no huge «Chesterfield» banquettes, no gold, no bling, but a soothing simplicity which gave us the impression to visit a small eatery in Paris «Latin Quarter», or «Saint-Germain-des-Près». The middle-sized, corridor shaped dining-room, with 20-foot ceilings, tiled walls, and arched windows, kept its original 1900s ceramic tiled floor. The decoration is minimalist; what comes into the plate only matters.
Besides its design, what makes The Olive Steakhouse distinctive is the fact that the meat isn't dry-aged the American / Argentinean way. Contrary to most of the best-established steakhouses which we have visited in District 1. Chef Nguyen Trung Quân rather does it the European way, and we had the impression to enjoy authentic French «Steak Frites». He visited France, and this is certainly from where he caught the original recipe. This makes his restaurant noticeable, and we did like it.
After being welcomed by the young, courteous staff, Megan, the charming Vietnamese owner and hostess, explained us a bit of the philosophy of her restaurant, and presented us the easy to read bilingual Vietnamese / English menu, featured on a single page.
We made it «all steak», as we wanted to experience at least two different cuts. It starts from 200gr (vs 150gr at the competitors). We therefore skipped certainly delicious signature dishes, like «Creamy New Zealand Mussels», «Porc Ribs», or «Duck Breast».
We shared 200gr Australian Tenderloin (VND 320.000 / USD 14) and Rib-Eye (VND 280.000 / USD 11.94). This was more than enough for the two of us. Medium-rare, Tenderloin was thick, rosée and juicy. Nicely textured and savourous, the 100% premium cut spoke by itself. Rib-Eye was very reminiscent of the Parisian steak served every day and every time in the French brasseries and «cafés»: unpretentious, yet palatable and tender. We maybe would have liked more herbs (thyme, basil, parsley...), bringing more Mediterranean flavor to the meat. The low-calories «Black Pepper» sauce -included in the price- ideally paired our steaks. Included also, the side dishes were amongst the best ever served with meat, and also from far the cheapest (approximately two dollars, if you want to re-order) compared with the competitors. We recommend «Potato au Gratin», and the creamy, yummy «Mac & Cheese» oven backed Macaroni.
We paired our dinner with house red wine (Australian Shiraz, at VND 130.000 / USD 5,5).
The selection of desserts was limited to «Chocolate Ice Cream & Cookies», and «Pancake & Strawberry Jam». Maybe because patrons are already done before they could finish the second course, preferring to skip desserts after the more than satisfying beef experience in one of the top five best steakhouses in Saigon by Tripadvisor.
Open daily 3PM - 10PM.
THE OLIVE STEAKHOUSE: 2nd Floor (next to L'Usine), 151 Dong Khoi Street, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
PHONE: +84 90 941 71 99
VATEL (****): This is the best option in Saigon for those looking for a low cost, yet authentic and stylish French restaurant. The explanation for such a young, cheerful, anticipating service, with good bistro dishes billed a the price of a Mc Donald's, is simple: tough you won't notice it, Vatel is a newly opened branch of the first worldwide business school group in hospitality and tourism management. It has not less than 50 branches around the world. The one in Saigon is so discreet, that it looks everything but a campus. A really unique place... where the staff pays to take care of the guests!
Located in an easy to find, most pleasant part of District 1 housing quite a lot of lovely colonial villas and landmarks, it has a small patio mainly serving cakes and snacks (though you can also order from the different menus), extending on a more classy dining room with an elegant cocktail bar and a pleasant VIP room where we had our lunch. There are also some rooms upstairs used for private receptions, or when the ground floor restaurant is full.
After being welcome in style by the French manager and the waiters's brigade awaiting us, standing in an impeccable row like in La Tour d'Argent Paris in its golden years, we sat in the VIP room, mostly booked for family banquet or corporate lunch. It is quite formal. Plushly appointed compared with the more bistro-style main dining room, which we found pleasantly old-school. Reflecting the atmosphere of one of those romantic restaurants flourishing in the Paris Latin Quarter or Saint Germain des Près. This matches perfectly Vatel's « Bistronomique » concept.
There are different menus, from VND 95,000 (USD 4) for the successful «Lunch à la Carte»), until VND 1,500,000 (USD 65) for the gargantuan «Mr. Vatel Menu» targetting the demanding gastronome. We tasted signature dishes from the different menus. A favorite starter, the «Duck Foie gras with Seasonal Salad and Hazelnut Oil, Figs Bread Toast» is an elegant classic served in an ad hoc portion. It is also declined panfried, on Dalat young cheese and toast of walnut bread and grape sauce reduction. We would like to recommend the typically French «Quiche Lorraine with Salad». As a main dish, we enjoyed a juicy and tender «Australian Beef with French Wine Sauce & Spaghetti». Alternatively, the legendary «Rossini with Truffle Sauce», according to the Escoffier's recipe, is included in the recommended VND 680,000 (USD 30) «Discovery Menu». We didn't taste fish that time, but the « Homard Thermidor» is another French classic that builds Vatel's reputation.
Astonishingly, we have not been proposed what makes a French heart beat: cheese. But desserts were Parisian, indeed: particularly the «Trio of Three Small French Pastries», a best seller which you can order at tea time. «Creme Brulée Vanilia» (each VND 150,000 / USD 7) is a must be tried.
We paired our lunch with one bottle of freshly delivered (we visited Vatel in December) Beaujolais Nouveau «Château de Pougelon, 2018». light and silky, with rich aromes of red fruits and bergamote. Our dessert came with one cup of Nespresso Caramel.
Vatel now provides all what Saigon was missing: a real French bistro, affordable to everybody for a quick lunch or sophisticated dinner on a fair budget.
Dress code casual. Open everyday except Sunday, 10am - 2pm and 5pm - 10pm.
VATEL: 120Bis Suong Nguyet Anh, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
PHONE: +84 28 5404 2212
L'USINE DONG KHOI (****): One of the most visited cafeterias in Saigon, crowded from breakfast until dinner time, this is one of our best addresses in District 1. Opposite Caravelle Hotel, a stone's throw from the Opera House and the legendary Continental Hotel, it has a fabulous location. Like all the bars and restaurants in the still so nostalgically French “rue Catinat” (renamed Dong Khoi after the independence), it could attract a majority of tourists. Astonishingly, after three consecutive visits, we didn't meet so many of them; but a pleasant, casually elegant, actually fashionable mix of expats and young patrons from the local elite, creating an entertaining ambiance in an entertaining, atypical building with a history.
The principal tenant of an early 20th-century reconstruction of the former Grand Hôtel de France, L'Usine is accessed through labyrinthic corridors and stairs, reflecting the post “Art Nouveau” style developed in Saigon during the French Protectorate. Innovative in the 1920s, the building still surprises the visitor, with its arcade, in which the Catinat-Ciné film theatre was installed in the 1930s. The unusual mosaic wall may still be seen by customers, as they make their way up to L'Usine.
Separated from the eatery by an original industrial sliding door, the shop sells premium quality Vietnamese products: food, of course, but also clothes, lighting, fragrances, and homeware. From La Petit Epicerie Saigon to Comme des Garçons, or Maison Kitsuné, all items are trendy, integrating the taste of the patrons. The design refers to a factory, with lots of discrete references to French cafés. We loved it at very first sight. This is the place where you would like to work on your PC sipping one cup of not less than 16 selections of super strong coffee (their espresso is the best in town), or bring your local girl friend: impressed to enjoy a twist of the cosmopolitan Saigon as it used in the 1950s.
Our gastronomic experience at L'Usine is based on one of the most exciting -and sought after- breakfasts in D1. Mixing the clients of the plush Park Hyatt Saigon with Vietnamese entrepreneurs, writers, artists, and fashionista. In!, indeed. This could be the location, the design, the French influence, with a mediocre food and service... On the contrary, this is actually gourmets place.
With most of the dishes served by generous portions for USD 5 till 9, desserts at approximately USD 5, and espresso at USD 2.5, L'Usine is not pricey. Compared with what you would pay in a leading hotel, the value for money is excellent. We ordered signatures like “Pancakes with Honeycomb Butter, Berry Jam, Maple Syrup & Cream”, rich and yummy. The warmly recommended “Smoked Salmon Eggs Benedict”, is 100% authentic: therefore not served on sliced bread, but over toasted English Muffins, as we like. It made us feel like sitting at Park Hyatt Paris-Vendôme, where we had the last memorable Eggs Benedict prior to our experience at L'Usine. Price wasn't on the same scale at all... Idem with the homemade desserts: we couldn't believe we would find such a perfect Lemon Tart with Meringue more than 10,000 kilometers from France!
Juices are ultra fresh. L'Usine best seller is: “Saigon Heat”. A morning rejuvenating shot, mixing orange, pineapple, watermelon, carrot, and ginger. We couldn't leave without drinking a pint of a unique beer in Indochina: “Saigon Saison”, by Pasteur Street Brewing Company. With 7.2% ABV, this award-winning brew features Phu Quoc Island black pepper, ginger, and lemongrass. Developing very spicy aromas, and a light wheat flavor pairing well with the dry finish.
We noted well that, like in all the venues managed by the excellent L Concepts group (Namo Tuscan Grill and Namo Artisanal Pizzeria), no MSG, and only freshly-picked veggie and world class ingredients are used.
One of our favorite addresses, unfortunately, earmarked for demolition since already almost a decade (a Chinese real estate company plans to build a bling building, eventually hosting a tacky hotel like “The Reverie”), L'Usine is double worth the visit to feel like the successful junction between the cosmopolite Saigon of yesteryear and of today.
Dress code casual.
Open daily 7:30 am – 10:30 pm.
L'USINE DONG KHOI: 151/5 Dong Khoi, District 1, Saigon, HCMC, Vietnam
PHONE: +84 28 6674 9565
THE HUE HOUSE (****): Excellent Vietnamese restaurants are plethoric in Saigon. From street food till fancy hotels dining rooms, enjoying one of the best cuisines in Asia, for all budgets, is so easy that we preferred not to review it. Let's make some exception with this hidden restaurant, with the oddest location ever: at the top of a soulless office building, in the very central District 1. Despite our GPS, it took us a few minutes, inquiring with security agents poorly trained in English, to be directed to a dull lobby without any visible mention of The Hué House. That was a few weeks after its opening, and things might have changed in the meanwhile. Thus, that kind of a treasure hunt was an entertaining introduction one of the most pleasant and romantic, totally unexpected dining rooms in D1.
Though Saigon has plentiful of café-terraces, it doesn't have many rooftop restaurants like this. Dominating the whole city from the tenth floor, it has a panorama on all the colonial landmarks and modern landmarks. Virtually all the tables come with a view, and a pleasant breeze. Even when the temperature is as canicular as it was the evening of our visit for the best dinner al fresco ever enjoyed in Ho Chi Minh City.
Now, for those saying, “- We like Vietnamese cuisine”, we would amend that the use of singular is incorrect. There are different cuisines in Vietnam. To roughly summarize, specialties from Saigon are rather sweet and blend. Not as spicy and aromatic as in Hué. A rich gastronomic heritage makes this city, and the whole region, a reference well over the borders of Vietnam. Those visiting a top ranked Vietnamese restaurant in Paris, New York or Sidney will surely enjoy Hué cuisine.
Central Vietnam used to be an Empire. Its cuisine is a reflection of this period: served to the rulers in relatively small portions shared between the guests, as it is still nowadays, including at the traditional Hué House, it is prominently vegetarian. Spicy, it must be displayed on the plate, according to the shapes and colors, to look like a work of art. A feast for the eyes as well as the palate, accompanied with sophisticated sauces absolutely specific to the dish.
Welcomed like feudal by the young and smiling staff, we immediately felt like at ease. Elegant and cool, the service pairs the standing of the terrace, designed like a secret garden with the structure of a wooden house. There is a central bar / open kitchen, emanating the mouth watering smells of spiced wok titillating our nose... and appetite.
That was a good surprise: the illustrated menu addressing the neophyte offers a large choice of definitely affordable dishes. Not much more expensive compared with those simple, yet delicious, small eateries serving Hué cuisine around Bên Tanh Market. Our Vietnamese guest considered that the quality of the super fresh ingredients was noticeably superior at The Hué House. Hard to say from a foreigner, recently initiated to the local gastronomy. What we would say, to keep on with a comparison, is that this rooftop terrace is definitely unbeaten in term of exclusive atmosphere.
A traditional Hué dinner should start with a hearty bowl of “Bun Bo Hué”, the city's signature noodle dish combining tender beef, vermicelli, and lemongrass.
The crispy “Banh Khoai”, fried pancake stuffed with pork belly and shrimps is one of our favorite appetizers, with the universally famous “Nem Lui”; finely minced ground beef and pork, plus shredded pork skin and fat, garlic, sugar and fish sauce, formed into sausages around stalks of lemongrass, grilled over charcoal and set in front of diners. We indeed like crisp, ordering also “Banh Beo”: steamed rice cakes, about the size of a two Euros coin, that comes five pieces to an order, topped with pork cracklings, sun-dried shrimps, aromatic herbs, and shallots, served with “Nuoc Mam Pha” fermented fish sauce (reputed highly aphrodisiac...).
Our favorite is “Com Hen”: a large portion of stir-fried clams with peanuts, crisp pork cracklings, bean sprouts, deep fried shallots and fresh herbs. From our experience, The Hué House serves the best “Com Hen” in Saigon. Moreover, the portion was generous compared with the other dishes.
We liked the soft texture of the “Banh Loc Tran” tapioca flour-based dough, stuffed with shrimps and pork. Another interesting texture: “Bun Thit Nuong”, grilled meat vermicelli with pig’s shoulder, lemongrass, white sesame, lemon, garlic, and scallion.
In the past, lotus was a rare ingredient in Hue, only served for the king. We, therefore, recommend it to conclude this delicious dinner in style, with “Che Hat Sen” lotus seeds sweet soup, a particularly refreshing dessert in the hot season.
This is a secret address from the exclusive Secret Tables catalog.
Dress code casual.
Open daily 10 am – 10 pm.
THE HUE HOUSE: Rooftop Master Building (10th floor) 41 - 43 Tran Cao Van street, Ward 6, District 3 Saigon 70000 , Vietnam
NAMO ARTISANAL PIZZERIA (****): Chef Ivan Barone didn't need to insist a lot to convince us to visit his pizzeria. With a targeted location, between Park Hyatt and El Gaucho, it attracts the same five-star guests for an informal yet gourmet experience in a contemporary two-storey dining space. Less intimate and chic, but more lively compared with Namo Tuscan Grill, its has the same gastronomic inspiration: providing the best, freshest products and the best recipes.
Here, the pizza is Neapolitan and not Roman. Neapolitan pizza is a unique species identifiable by a different dough recipe. It tends to have a thin to medium thin crust made with olive oil, flour, water, yeast, salt. There is no addition of oil, which is the main distinction from Roman dough. It gives the crust less weight, more flavor, and a slightly less crispy, more chewy texture. Cooked in a bricks oven, imported in three parts from Italy and assembled in the open-cuisine where you can see the chef and his team of pizzaioli at work, and even briefly chat with them. There is a bar next to the cuisine, for an aperitif before getting a table available in this always full restaurant.
We like two kinds of pizza. The most simple, and the most sophisticated. We, therefore, started with what is considered the best “Margherita” in town. Topped with basil, tomatoes, and Mozzarella, it can't be more rustic; yet, what a delicacy! Order half portion only, at VND 95,000, and spend another VND 255,000 for a “Crabster”. This is the high-end version of a pizza. A signature at Namo, it comes with a fishy fresh crab, lobster and shrimp roe aristocratic topping, Mascarpone, seaweed, and a rich tomato sauce. Next visit, we shall definitely order a “Burrata” at VND 290,000, with artisanal Burrata, Mozzarella and San Marzano tomatoes. Or a lavish “Truffle & Forest Mushrooms” (VND 360,000), with black truffle, mushrooms medley, and Mozzarella.
Signature pastas are simply exquisite. We couldn't miss “Crab Tagliolini Al Nero” (VND 390,000): fishy handmade squid ink pasta, spicy crab ragout, and tomatoes. Our partner ordered “Linguine With Spicy Lobster” (with cherry tomatoes from Dalat), at VND 450,000. A marvel!
We suggest pairing it all with and organic “Citto Toscana IGT 2014” (VND 220,000 by the glass). Everything on the menu is guaranteed preservative and MSG free!
Though the Tiramisu and Panna Cotta are distinctive, we think that it would be a pity to skip the “Mojito Pizza” (VND 190,000). A curiosity and a real treat, it features rum Mascarpone cream, white chocolate, vanilla ice cream, mint and lime syrup...
Much more than a pizzeria (you have one hundred of them in Saigon), this is a fine dining restaurant, indeed, with its regular patrons, and a real temple of Italian gastronomy in the most gourmand city in Vietnam.
Open Monday-Sunday, 11am - 11pm. Happy hour everyday, 11am - 7pm.
NAMO TRADITIONAL PIZZERIA: 74/6 Hai Bà Trung, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
PHONE: +84 8 3822 7988
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