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IN Ho Chi Minh City 🇻🇳 Since 2008

SAIGON INSPIRATION RESTAURANTS UP SACLE SOCIAL CLUB RESTAURANT – HÔTEL DES ARTS SAIGON

1930S LONDON MEETS 21ST-CENTURY SAIGON AT HÔTEL DES ARTS SAIGON SOCIAL CLUB​

Situated along the vibrant Nguyen Thi Minh Khai street lies one of Saigon’s most beautiful luxury boutique hotels, Hôtel des Arts Saigon. The opulent hotel is part of Sofitel’s global MGallery Collection, and features a few of the city’s trendiest hotspots, including its acclaimed restaurant, Social Club Saigon.

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The lavish lounge and restaurant was designed by the renowned Japanese design firm Super Potato. The decor transports the diners back to 1930s London, an era when the art of drinking and eating was specially reserved for those with aristocratic tastes. Those “in the know” would meet in private gentleman’s clubs tucked into hidden corners of the city where they would sink into club chairs, smoke cigars and sip fine wines in privacy.

 

At Hôtel des Arts Saigon, the gentleman’s club idea has quite literally been elevated to another greater heights. From the vantage point of the 23rd floor, guests can enjoy panoramic views of the city while luxuriating in the same warm tones, wooden details and opulent fabrics of the nostalgic past; all while appreciating the 21st-century comforts and standards provided by this high-class hotel. Social Club Saigon’s authentic, vintage Victorian bar—a treasure that was picked up at a London auction—completes the stylish scene.

 

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Social Club Saigon’s Brunch Club and Delicatessen Serve Up World-Class Cuisine

Social Club Saigon serves an array of European and international dishes. The menu is curated by Executive Chef Egidio Latorraca, an Italian chef whose cooking has also been featured in top hotels in Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Bali.

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The restaurant is open every day, but one of Social Club Saigon’s most popular events is its weekly Sunday brunch, coined as the Hôtel des Arts Saigon “Brunch Club”. Decadent fare such as Wagyu beef and lobster, truffle risotto and gently grilled foie gras with mango or passion fruit coulis create an explosion of flavours that marry perfectly with the option of free-flow champagne, wine or Social Club’s expertly crafted cocktails. One thing is certain, an afternoon spent at a Hôtel des Arts Saigon brunch will not be your typical eggs and toast type of Sunday.

 

In addition to its Brunch Club, Saigon Social Club hosts another weekly event, Delicatessen Night. Guests can enjoy free-flow of the restaurant’s premium wines and cold-cuts, Italian grissini and cheeses hand-selected by the kitchen.

 

Image source: lozi.vn

Mr. Marcel is the patron saint of the event. He was a delicatessen who lived across from a swank Gentleman’s Club in London, England. Each evening, Mr. Marcel appeared at the club with his best gourmet wares, which he paired with the establishment’s own tipples. Mr. Marcel’s imported meats and cheeses paired with old-fashioned cocktails and top vintage wines are said to have launched the gourmet food scene across Europe.

 

Each week, the event staff will escort visitors back in time to turn-of-the-century Europe, where, in spirit of Mr. Marcel, the Social Club Saigon hosts a night of nostalgic indulgence.

 

Follow the Social Club on Facebook to learn about other culinary evenings with Michelin-starred chefs, top wineries as well as exclusive invitations to brand events and musical soirees. There is always something on at Saigon Social Club. For special occasions, the venue also offers three private rooms and a separate party room. Buffet dinners for large groups can be arranged upon request.

 

Image source: kenh14.vn

Brunch Club

Every Sunday from 12 pm to 3 pm, for VND 1,988,000++ per person, enjoy the most exclusive brunch in town.

 

Delicatessen

Gather like-minded gourmets together and mark your calendars for Social Club Saigon’s Delicatessen Night every Wednesday from 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm. For VND 588,000++ per guest, go back to Mr Marcel’s good old days with a top-notch selection of charcuterie, cheese and wine.

 

Gentleman’s Night

Every third Thursday from 10 pm, premium wine and spirits complement sweet and savoury snacks for an evening even Sinatra would have adored.

 

Tales of Modern Jazz

Every Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 8:00 pm – 10:00 pm Exuding sophistication and elegance, The Social Club Restaurant is the place to be if you’re looking to enjoy jazz music while soaking in the views of magnificent Saigon from 23rd floor.The hotel’s in-house jazz band “Plug n’ Play” will take you on a nostalgic journey through soulful performances.

 

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SAIGON INSPIRATION RESTAURANTS UP SACLE MEET THE EXPERT: SAKAL PHOEUNG OF LE CORTO

To renowned French Chef Sakal Phoeung, the most important factor in opening and maintaining a successful restaurant anywhere in the world is the right balance of hardware and software. In other words, the right people to work in the right space. With its market for Western cuisine rapidly growing, pushing competition and increasing the need for quality food and service, this was never more applicable to Vietnam’s economic hub Saigon. We spoke to Sakal Phoeung about his experience in Asia as one of the top, executive Chefs in the region for over 15 years to gain some insight into the key to success in Ho Chi Minh City’s ever-greater market for fine, international cuisine.

 

What brought you to Southeast Asia?

I have been in Asia since 2000, first coming to Vietnam in 2000 with 5-star hotel chain Sofitel as the Executive Chef for their Saigon hotel. Between 2000 and 2012 I moved around the region working for Sofitel, first in China (Beijjing) for two-and-a-half years and back to Southeast Asia in 2010 to open a new branch for the brand in Phnom Penh. I came back to Saigon in 2012 and worked there until early March 2016 when I realised that I wanted something more. I had always dreamed to be an executive chef in a 5-star hotel, and now that I had done it for so long I wanted a new challenge. So I left, and I opened my own restaurant here in Saigon called Le Corto.

 

You have a lot of experience working in some of the best restaurants in Asia. What do you think is the key to opening and maintaining a successful restaurant here?

You have to think of the software. The staff. People who open a restaurant here invest so much in creating a beautiful decor, but they don’t think as much about investing in good staff. You cannot deliver low quality food in HCMC anymore because the people know what fine food is, so it is so important to get a good manager and chef. No matter what your restaurant looks like, without a good manager and chef you cannot be successful!

 

So staff is very important. What is the key to finding good, quality staff for your restaurant?

There are schools in this city that turn out good quality staff, such as Vattel, but really the most valuable thing to look for is experience. I started work at 18, but my first position as a chef was at 30. You cannot hire a youngster and expect a wise man’s work. Owners here often hire younger, less experienced staff because they are cheaper, but at the end of the day it costs them more! Another option is to hire someone who is totally new to the job and train him. About 10 years ago a young guy came to me to ask for a job. He was a security guard at Ben Thanh Market at the time! Anyway, I trained him and he worked hard, he learned quickly, and now he is the Assistant Chef at the Caravelle Saigon.

 

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IN GENERAL, WHAT ARE THE MAIN CHALLENGES IN WORKING WITH VN COOKING STAFF?

The main challenge is language – communication. But actually in the kitchen we speak a limited number of words – about technique, ingredients, etc – so eventually everyone understands. In France the workers are workers and the chefs are chefs, but here in Vietnam chefs are more like teachers with students. And the Vietnamese are great students – they want to learn, are ambitious, and eager to participate. When I worked in China the attitude of my staff was not motivated – they had everything at home, mum and dad cooked for them and looked after them, so why should they work? And in Cambodia my staff lacked discipline. But the Vietnamese have something.

HOW DO you retain your staff long-term?

I give them a dream. Of course my staff always wants to learn new skills, so I teach them and I give them opportunities to move up and improve, because if you show someone that he can do something if he works, he will be inspired to work hard. As a chef I never hide my experience, my recipes, my knowledge – I like to share it and help others to learn.

CAN YOU BREAK DOWN THE AVERAGE SALARIES FOR RESPECTIVE POSITIONS IN A HIGH QUALITY, WESTERN RESTAURANT IN SAIGON?

The basic starting salary is about VND 5 million per month, and Chef De Partie can earn about VND 10 million. It takes a minimum of four years to really progress from beginner to Chef De Partie, if you want to do your job well, and to become a Chef it can take up to 10 years. The Chef here earns between VND 40-50 million per month, and as quality Pastry Chefs or Bakers are hard to find they can also earn up to VND 50 million. An experienced English speaking waiter can earn between VND 6-10 million per month, plus tips.

HOW DO YOU MAKE SURE QUALITY IS MAINTAINED IN THE PRODUCTS YOU USE TO MAKE YOUR FOOD?

Well there are official government-set standards for hygiene and quality of food – of course! But the difficulty is in enforcing them. They come to inspect kitchens often, especially in 5-star hotels, but they never look at our processes, products, working environment, etc. 100%, from the supplier to the kitchen. Actually I remember one time I was on my way to work and I followed a guy on a motorbike with a big crate of frozen vegetables on the back, melting, wet, and I bet you by the time that food got to its destination it was warm. When I worked in Sofitel we imported our bread and honestly it was hard to get it to arrive at the restaurant above 15 degrees.

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IS IT HARD TO FIND SOME OF THE ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS IN THE FOOD YOU COOK HERE?

Despite what you might think, it has become harder to source ingredients since I came here in 2000. You need a whole load of licenses to sell now, which cost money, so suppliers are often reluctant to work with places unless they will be ordering large enough amounts. But in the end it’s not so much the quantity or availability of the products that is an issue – it is the quality. I import all my meat because the animals here are so skinny, and the quality of their meat is so low. Also, though vegetables are widely available here their flavour is just not as good as in Europe. It’s a hot country, and the produce grows too quickly.

WHO ARE THE MAIN PLAYERS FOR GOOD FOOD IMPORTS TO HCMC AT THE MOMENT?

Well Classic Fine Foods has been here for a long time, and is still a key contender. At the beginning they had very high prices because there was no competition! But now a number of good suppliers have popped up – Annam, New Viet Dairy, etc. There really is a lot of choice, and because of that the prices have dropped.

WHAT IS THE IDEAL RATIO BETWEEN RENT COST AND OVERALL PROFIT FOR A RESTAURANT IN SAIGON’S D1?

The cost of rent does depend on where you are, but D1 is generally expensive. You should make sure that costs are not over 8-15% of your overall earnings. So if you rent an expensive property you’ve got to be prepared to generate some pretty amazing business! The general rule of thumb is to allocate 18% of profit for staff salaries, 15% for rent and about 32-35% for food costs. At the end you only make 32% profit – so you’d better make it count.

COMPETITION IS RISING FOR QUALITY INTERNATIONAL CUISINES HERE IN HCMC. BECAUSE OF THIS, HOW SUSTAINABLE IS THE RESTAURANT BUSINESS HERE?

Very – I estimate that we’ve only reached about 40% of the possible capacity that Saigon has for good, international food. We have about 10-15 years more potential for growth. Today no-one can get a two star Michelin rating – they can cook the food, but not to that quality. More people are becoming richer and more globally aware, so the demand goes up. I think that the general attitude here is geared towards even more global integration – people want to learn about foreign ways of life – not like China, for example, where people are less open minded.

 

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I’VE HEARD THAT PROPERTY OWNERS HERE IN VIETNAM OFTEN BREAK A LEASE BEFORE THE CONTRACT ENDS - WHY DO THEY DO SO? AND IS THERE ANYTHING YOU CAN DO TO AVOID THIS?

No there is nothing you can do at all – it’s a game, a matter of luck! They have absolutely no law for that kind of thing, I think. In Vietnam people are so business minded – in here it is a systematic thing – if you are doing good business why would they let you do it? Property owners will rent you their space, but as soon as your business is going well they may just kick you out and try to run that business themselves! What they don’t realise is that they are missing the software – the staff – so it rarely ever works. A while back, I opened a bakery here called Bon Appetite and after one year the owner sold the building. I had to move all my equipment – everything – and in the end I didn’t make any profit anymore, so the business ended. It was just bad luck.

IN THE PAST THERE WAS NO VAT, NO SERVICE TAX, BUT NOW SOME PLACES EVEN CHARGE 7-10%! DOES THIS MONEY ALWAYS GO TO THE WORKERS?

Supposedly, I mean it should. In my experience the Vietnamese owners often don’t give the service charges to their staff members. Maybe they don’t know what the service tax is, or maybe they just don’t want to know. That’s why the staff ask for a good, already quite high salary when they apply for a job – because they can’t guarantee tips. VND 3.7 million is basic salary, after service charge more – sometimes VND 5 million per month. Local staff ask minimum 4-4.5 million. For the hotel it is standard.

YOU ARE AN EXPERT IN A NUMBER OF CUISINES. WHAT IS YOUR OPINION OF VIETNAMESE FOOD?

Well, though I love the food as a food, it is not yet a gastronomy. The evolution of Vietnam’s food has been slow because they were not integrated into the world early on like Europe and the rest of the West, so no one has developed it as a fine food – it is still unrefined. That being said, Vietnamese food is one of the best in the world – light, a little bit spicy, easy to eat, plenty of herbs and fresh vegetables – it’s not like Chinese food with its heavy, fatty sauces and strange flavours. It can be adapted to any dietary preference or taste. But how to present Vietnamese food as a gastronomy cuisine? It is difficult. Vietnamese chefs have thought about it, but their cuisine is like a garden on a table, lots of herbs, so to condense it into a small, compact dish on the table is very hard. They bring out beautiful products with lovely presentation, but missing flavour. It is a process, you need time.

 

DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE RESTAURANT IN HCMC?

I cannot say! I love to eat in the street. My favourite street food is a chicken place near the Bitexco Tower, and I sometimes go to D4 for a really delicious crab dish in one of the alleyways near Hoang Dieu. In Vietnamese food there is a special sauce for each dish. You never see that anywhere else – in Thailand they have chili sauce, in China they have fish sauce – it is so carefully and specifically done. And I would say that the best Vietnamese food is definitely on the street, because they focus on only one product and make it really well.

SO IS VIETNAMESE FOOD AN ESSENTIAL ELEMENT OF THE VIETNAMESE TRAVEL EXPERIENCE?

Absolutely. People come here to visit what? Country, culture, attractions, landscape, yes, but the main thing is the food. They often only come one time, not two, because there aren’t HUGE attractions like the pyramids in Egypt, etc. They come for the food.

WHAT IS YOUR MAIN PIECE OF ADVICE FOR A YOUNG CHEF LOOKING FOR A JOB IN SAIGON?

Go to a 5 star hotel first to learn with a good team in a good environment, or a big company. Don’t think about salary. Learn and make your way up the ladder, then when you have experience you can have your pick of the best salaries. If you make the mistake to go to a different restaurant with a higher salary but offering limited experience, what do you learn at the end of it? Money is like water – you use it, and it is gone.

 
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SAIGON INSPIRATION RESTAURANTS UP SACLE SECRETS BEHIND THE CULINARY ART OF FOOD PLATING AT SOCIAL CLUB RESTAURANT

The Power of Plating

When you think of a great restaurant, what comes to mind? Professional kitchen staff? Impeccable and detail-oriented service? The highest quality ingredients? Of course, whether it’s a street food stall with a few plastic stools, or a classic fine dining experience—it really comes down to the food. But how is it that high-end restaurants set themselves apart?

For a reputable, top-quality establishment like Social Club Restaurant at Hôtel Des Arts Saigon, it all comes down to an experience that goes beyond the flavours. Before you even taste what you’re about to enjoy, you’ve already begun to appreciate it with your eyes. Priming your palate with a dish that is thoughtfully and tastefully arranged can dramatically heighten and enhance your experience. 

In other words, everything tastes better when it looks good too! This is the power of plating, and far from being an afterthought, it’s a surprisingly critical part of the rigorous, careful process that goes into each dish at Social Club Restaurant—not only to perfectly prepare and combine every ingredient, but to present them in a way that is appealing, fresh, and exciting.

Plating is truly an art form, and in keeping with the reputation at Hôtel Des Arts Saigon as a celebration of warm, inviting interior design and authentic experiences of rich historical traditions, you can expect every dish that emerges from the Social Club Restaurant’s kitchen to be not only delicious down to the last bite, but remarkably detailed and artful in its presentation. 

What Exactly Goes Into Plating?

The chefs at Social Club Restaurant must consider several factors to plate a dish in a way that conveys not only the quality of the ingredients, but the passion that goes into the dish itself:

1. The Perfect Plate: Though many restaurants and home cooks may take this first step for granted, choosing the right plate can make a world of difference. If the food is a work of art, the plate serves as a canvas and a frame. Typically chefs choose a neutral color like black or white, to provide a contrast and really make the colours and textures of every item on the dish “pop.”

Saigon Social Club Restaurant uses unique custom plates for this purpose, each one carefully and intentionally chosen. Notice how the radial pattern on the dish used to serve the pan seared foie gras draws your eyes to the center of the plate, where the main ingredients really shine—almost as though they were presenting themselves to you.

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2. The Placement: Height, color, and the rule of thirds all factor into how chefs decide to arrange the food on each plate. Typically the protein (usually a cut of meat) takes up half of the plate, while the other quarters are divided between a starch and a vegetable. Alternatively, chefs may take a more “freestyle” approach and disperse all the elements evenly throughout the plate.

 

The Lobster Salad at the Social Club Restaurant is a great example of this. Embracing the circle of life in its best harmony, arranging bright, colourful, fresh ingredients in a circular pattern invites you to approach the dish from any angle. Sauces are applied carefully with a drizzle, or with tiny dots—the idea here is not to drown the food, but to ensure you get to taste a little bit of everything with each bite. Chefs can even add height by “stacking” ingredients, which can help avoid the appearance of overcrowding and really make the dish stand out (no pun intended). Staged with a playful use of colour—warm orange, bright yellow and refreshing green, this piece of art instantly puts a smile on your face and uplifts your mood while dining.

 

Image source: assets.epicurious.com

3. The Details: Attention to detail is critical for maximizing visual appeal. Gone are the days when chefs at high-end restaurants casually throw a piece of kale or an orange slice on a dish for a quick garnish. At the Social Club Restaurant, each and every detail is carefully considered and applied to not only elevate the aesthetic of the dish, but to enhance the flavours as well.

 

Fragrant, fresh herbs can serve not only to complement the taste, but to add a sense of lightness and brightness to a dish. Different textures, like the apple confit and buckwheat touille served with the pan seared foie gras, not only serve as critical flavour components within the dish, but add an appealing array of crumbly, crunchy textures as well as additional structure to the dish.

 

Quality Beyond Presentation at the Social Club Restaurant

The Social Club Restaurant at Hôtel des Arts is committed to sourcing the highest-quality ingredients, importing items such as lobster from world-renowned fisheries in Canada, and sourcing only locally-produced, organic vegetables from farms in Da Lat. Yet while many upscale establishments create a sense of austerity and strict fine dining, you’ll get just the opposite experience at the Social Club Restaurant. It is, after all, Social! And the convivial warmth and “homey” atmosphere of the restaurant is more akin to dining in the company of dear friends.

From sourcing, to preparation, to the meticulous final plating process, every detail at the Social Club Restaurant is inviting and welcoming, beckoning its guests to explore and discover exciting, premium cuisine in a sensuous, authentic, cozy atmosphere night after night.

Image source: kenau.vn
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SAIGON INSPIRATION RESTAURANTS UP SACLE FINE DINING: FOLLOW THE EVOLUTION OF FINE DINING IN SAIGON

In 2016, Nielsen Holdings estimated that Vietnam’s middle class will boom to reach a population of 44 million by 2020 and 95 million by the year 2030, one of the fastest growth rates in Southeast Asia. Consequently, the desire for luxury goods has also risen starkly and this shift can be seen outside of the retail sector as well. There has been a rapid influx of F&B establishments catering to higher income individuals seeking the finer things in life, such as imported food products, wines and international service standards.

Street food and “family-style” cuisine will always be a part of the local food scene in Vietnam, especially since a lot of them are must visit unique restaurants in Saigon, but now, there is also a market for gastronomic eateries, foodie concepts and gourmet restaurants that adhere to European culinary arts standards. We sat down with Chef Thierry Mounon of La Villa French Restaurant to understand more about how contemporary demands for fine dining have transformed Saigon.

Spoilt For Choice

“[There are] definitely more choices now,” Chef Thierry said. When he opened La Villa French Restaurant in District 2 in 2010, there was not the same level of competition. Over the last several years, along with La Villa French Restaurant and Le Bordeaux, one of the founders of French fine dining in HCMC, other establishments such as L’Escale by Thierry Drapeau, and Le Corto run by Chef Sakal Phoeung, and other new restaurants in Saigon, have helped solidify the presence of French gastronomy in Saigon.

Other European establishments such as R&J Italian Lounge and Restaurant, and Asian haute cuisine options like L’Aura de Nam Ky (Vietnamese) and Sushi Rei (Japanese) have also rounded out the scene. 5-star hotels such as Hotel des Arts Saigon have also contributed to the trend with culinary events at their F&B venues featuring world-class chefs.

Image source: foody.vn

There’s More to Fine Dining than Michelin

Chef Thierry Mounon spent his formative years working at Michelin-starred restaurants in southern France, London and Bora Bora. Although other top chefs in Saigon also have worked in two or three-star kitchens , the Michelin inspectors have yet to add any restaurant in Ho Chi Minh to their hallowed list. It is quite an undertaking to get the army of Michelin food inspectors into a host country for reviews; however, it is worth noting that excellence in cuisine can be attained without an entry in the guide, especially when chefs come to Vietnam with a star already on their CV. 

 

Image source: Kiyota Sushi Sake Restaurant

“Many places are run by Michelin starred chefs now. There is more choice and more competition,” Chef Thierry said. “I like competition; it keeps me warm. People go to another place to try something new and return to me later.” 

 

Part of what makes clients return to La Villa French Restaurant, in Chef Thierry’s opinion, is identity. “We define ourselves [at La Villa] as classic, yet sophisticated. I cook what I love. My tastes were moulded by my childhood in the south of France. The key is in the techniques, the flavours, and pushing the borders of gastronomy without losing identity.” Chef Thierry even has a favourite hashtag to this effect: #classicforareason. 

 

True Fine Dining

In true fine dining, the codes are important—the plating, the presentation of the courses, the ambience, and the training of staff. While a gastropub concept can be distinct and excellent in its own right, it is not characterized as fine dining per se, but just like the food scene in Saigon, this definition may be expanding. Saigon, as a culinary destination, is certainly going beyond the street food experience. Soon enough, foodies may be choosing from tiny plastic stools streetside or sitting in a Michelin starred restaurant-gourmet paradise. There’s room for a little bit of everything in this thriving foodtropolis.

 

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SAIGON INSPIRATION RESTAURANTS UP SACLE FRENCH CUISINE IN VIETNAM: THE STORY OF A (RE-)DISCOVERY

Western cuisine is on the rise in Vietnam, and not just since yesterday: especially the metropolises Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi have seen a wave of French, Italian, American, Mexican and German restaurants in the past decade. Interestingly, Vietnamese seem to embrace this development. More and more local residents have been venturing to foreign restaurants to tease their palates with exotic tastes and flavours. A simple question arises: how did this come to be?

Fish Sauce Versus Cream and Butter

Is Western food really so exotic to Vietnamese? After all, Vietnam’s eventful history gave the country’s people ample opportunity to get to know the Western lifestyle. The French colonised the country in the 19th century, and of course, they brought their food. Because of this, many Vietnamese dishes have Western roots. You want proof? Just look at their names! Banh mi, Vietnam’s take on the French baguette and one of the country’s most popular snacks, originates from the word pain de mie, which means, simply, toast. And pho, Vietnam’s ultimate signature dish, bears its name from pot au feu, a French beef stew (which is probably why French obstinately pronounce pho like feu).

 

But the Vietnamese never failed to give those French dishes a distinct local touch, making them theirs and preserving the people’s food comfort zone. After all, Vietnamese cuisine itself boasts a rare variety of dishes and flavours throughout the country, from the hearty Northern dishes to the tangy Central delicacies and the sugary Southern fare. No cheese here though, no pastry and no foie gras. The differences between the Vietnamese and the French cuisine remain striking: chopsticks here, fork and knife there; shared meals here, individual servings there; fish sauce and soy sauce here, cream and butter there – and can you imagine a French bon vivant sitting on a tiny plastic chair in a Parisian brasserie!?

 

Fancying Fanciness

Still, things in Vietnam are constantly changing. The country is opening to the world on multiple levels. Of course, Ho Chi Minh City, the cosmopolitan metropolis and expat magnet, is in the vanguard of this international development: this is where trends are set. More and more foreign residents are coming into the city, and with them a cosmopolitan food scene that just keeps growing. Old Saigon has become a culinary gateway to the world!

 

With the new food offer, a certain curiosity has taken hold of the Vietnamese. The more international the city becomes, the less local Saigoneers shy away from gastronomical adventures, most likely because they are more familiar with Western smells, tastes and textures. “Fusion” is the new magic word in Vietnam’s upper-class cuisine, which mixes Eastern and Western food traditions to create stunning new flavours.

 

But there’s also another tangible change within the Vietnamese society. Booming Vietnam’s middle class is growing, so today many more Vietnamese can afford a lifestyle earlier generations couldn’t even dream of. While their parents had to save every dong they could, this new up-and-coming class can afford being fancy – and, more importantly, they want to be fancy. Farewell to the tiny plastic chairs, hello fine dining!

 

The Fine-Dining World Leader

Fine dining is still an expat domain in Vietnam, simply because it has never been part of the local food culture. It’s no wonder, then, that Thao Dien, Saigon’s expatriate hub in District 2, is also the city’s fine-dining centre. Not only is the foreign food scene more costly as it relies on imported ingredients, but the service and cooking staff have to meet the highest international standards to satisfy potentially demanding guests as well.

 

This is all the more true for French cuisine, the fine-dining world leader. Consequently, Vietnamese who want to experience top-class Western food and service standards are drawn to French restaurants. Here, they find the richest and most diverse selection of quality food from the motherland of Michelin.

 

Those little palate-pleasers, the French canapés, amuses-bouches and mignardises, as well as the rich flavours of wine sauces and cooked-on-point fillets have never made their way into Vietnamese food traditions. Pair them with the outstanding wines from France’s pre-eminent wineries and the world-famous French dessert expertise – and you have a feast that will open a new culinary world to any Vietnamese gustatory adventurer.

 

For a second time, Vietnamese are “making French dishes theirs” as they whole-heartedly indulge in everything français. So, shouldn’t we say that is it only now, centuries after the first encounter of the two countries, that French cuisine has truly found its way into Vietnamese culture?

 

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SAIGON INSPIRATION RESTAURANTS UP SACLE THE RISE OF FINE DINING IN VIETNAM

Well-known for its street food tours and alleyway cafés, visitors to Vietnam can often make the mistake of overlooking its more upmarket eateries. But while street food will always be deep in the country’s heart, its soul now lies with the exquisite culinary experiences that can be had in its new wave of fine-dining restaurants. These young, enterprising chefs are creating a new identity for Vietnamese cuisine that is entirely its own.

By mixing elegance, quality ingredients and traditional cooking techniques, Vietnamese fine dining selects the best parts of street food and brings them to the restaurant table with a touch of class.

Teaching the Basics

Of course, getting to grips with the basics is vital for any successful chef and kitchen – something that can be seen in Ho Chi Minh City’s Mai Sen Bistro and Maisen Vocational Training Centre (56 Nguyen Van Lac, Binh Thanh District), which teaches restaurant service and cooking to disadvantaged, budding young chefs and restaurateurs from Vietnam and sets them up for a future to cook in some of the best Vietnamese kitchens.

 

“Crucial techniques such as braising, grilling and stewing are all part of the three-year training course at the school” according to Minh Phan, one of its students. He explains how they are also taught the importance of presentation – something which can often be overlooked in street cooking.

 

Image source: Tam Le

It is the mixture of these traditional skills with modern techniques that creates fine dining at its best, as well as the subtle combination of flavours and textures that can only come from generations of refinement. Popular street foods like pho and banh mi contrast the crunch of raw or pickled vegetables with the softer texture of cooked meat or paté. To take this to another level, fine dining restaurants add their own flair. La Residence in Hue, for example, has a salad starter with soft pomelo, grilled sun-dried squid and a crispy prawn cracker.

Likewise, in Saigon’s Xu Saigon restaurant there are dishes which balance textures well, such as nem cua bể, a crispy deep-fried crab spring roll, served with crunchy pickles and a soft, fresh rice noodle salad.

Learning from the Past for the Future

In many of the high-class kitchens of Vietnam, it is not only traditional techniques that continue to influence modern-day chefs. As Mike Barclei-Smythe, the general manager of Global Vintage Wines, who works with and dines at many of the great restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City points out, many traditional recipes are still being used today.

 

One in particular, which is a favourite of his, is the Vietnamese dishmắm kho quẹt. “It’s made from pork fat, pieces of pork, dried shrimp, onion, garlic and sugar and is traditionally cooked in a clay pot and used to be a cheap way to feed a family,” he explains.

 

Image source: Hue Nguyen

But this an old dish that many modern Vietnamese chefs are plating up in their kitchens today across the country. Fine dining is not only about distilling the essence of the past – it’s also about innovation, and what better ingredient to play with than the nation’s favourite?

 

Served with most meals, rice, or cơm, is an essential part of the Vietnamese diet. The street food cơm tấm, literally translated as “broken rice”, is essentially a dish of small rice bits, served with a little meat (most often pork), fish or vegetable and is eaten by locals with a fried egg and diluted fish sauce.

 

Image source: Nikki Tran

A nice modern twist of this classic can be seen at The Hue House in Ho Chi Minh City, where the chefs have mixed brown and white rice grains together and added diced carrot. The Hue House owner, Huy Tran, says having two types of rice adds to the texture, while the carrot enhances its sweetness, turning this modest side order into something rather special.

 

The same restaurant has played with the humble bánh đa – a popular rice cracker snack – by adding the choice of several extravagant toppings, including steamed fish or minced shrimp, something that you would never find perched down on a stall in the street.

 

An Eye for Ingredients

Mr Tran says it is the quality of these ingredients that sets his and other fine dining restaurants apart from street food stalls. Global Vintage Wines’ Mr Barclei-Smythe adds that high-end kitchens have greater control over their ingredient supply.

 

A point which Mr Tran echoes saying he and his chefs hand pick their ingredients daily to ensure quality – something that can be seen in their bánh bột lọc dumpling dish. Instead of cooking these dumplings with the traditionally smaller and cheaper shrimp, The Hue House selects larger and finer-quality prawns.

 

It is this attention to detail and quality that makes fine dining Vietnamese food so special. Blending tradition with new ideas and better-quality ingredients opens up a whole new world for the chefs making waves in Vietnam’s cities, and the number of new restaurants opening is a testament to their success.

 

Image source: Nikki Tran
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Image source: Nikki Tran