The Vietnamese city’s dining scene has witnessed a cultural transformation…
I stepped off the plane with a sense of trepidation. My book publisher had assigned me to photograph Saigon. My culinary memory told me to shoot and run.
What I discovered, however, is that Saigon has become a far more sophisticated city than the one I’d visited 15 years previously – and its tastes have followed suit, thanks to the numerous high calibre chefs that now call this former French colony home.
Cepage with Andreas Ertle
"Work hard. Work fast. And shut up," says German Chef Andreas Ertle who goes by the name Andy. "These are the three lessons I’ve learned in becoming a chef".
Turning to the culinary world following poor academic performance, Andy was lucky enough to have landed a job at a Michelin starred restaurant straight after his apprenticeship. In the years that followed Andy entered the kitchens of other Michelin restaurants around the world, including the three-star Aubergine in Munich, before coming to Saigon where he helped open Cepage last year.
"The concept was to provide something different, yet retaining the basic classic taste, so that’s when I decided on a modem menu with an Asian twist," he explains. The moment you bite into the Blue Swimmer Salad you know that Andy has read every word in his library of over 250 food books. Chunks of swimmer crab are stuffed in its shell next to a pair of prawns that taste like they could have been jumping a minute ago. Alone, the seafood is as it should be: perfectly fresh. Smeared with Andy’s mango-pomelo chutney and you know this chef has edge.
The bar menu, available in the lounge, has equally ingenious dishes. Try Whybrow Nugget, a lightly battered tender duck foie gras flash fried to a crisp, or fish and chips that leave you amazed at how delicious fried food can taste when the freshest, highest quality ingredients are used.
Skewers with Tristan Ngo
"Skewers’ success is in its comfort food. I only put what I love on the menu. Like my clam chowder – I know this is a Mediterranean restaurant, but it’s something close to my heart and, judging by the number of bowls we serve up every day, I’m glad I followed my taste buds!" says chef Tristan Ngo.
I started with Tristan’s version of spinakopita. Rather than using the traditional feta-only recipe, his is a mix of spinach, feta cheese, goat’s cheese and cream cheese. The initial bite goes through several thin layers of crispy golden filo pastry. As you bite deeper you come to the inner, chewier layers, puncturing the last to release into your mouth a good helping of the three-cheese filling.
My next course was the roast duck with port and cherry Sauce. Spread into a fan, the slices of duck breast are served with the crisp and perfectly seasoned skin still intact. The sweet sauce is so delicious it leaves me wondering why so many chefs persist in pairing duck with orange sauce.
As a final course, I chose Death by Chocolate – chocolate ice cream served with a warm round of brownie just thick enough to hold a dark chocolate syrup that comes spilling out the moment you put your spoon to it. It is at once hot and cold; bitter and sweet.
Black Cat with Geoffrey Deetz
On the day of the interview with American Chef Geoffrey Deetz I sat early in the back of the dark and narrow eatery with no more than five tables in front of me. As I waited, 10 sandwiches must have passed me, all needing my attention.
I quickly asked for the menu, playing a game of pairing up names to passing sandwiches. I’d only managed to match a dozen or so before Geoffrey walked in with his huge friendly smile.
The Californian chef, who grew up with nine brothers and sisters, has been cooking since he was five. He started his career in the multi-cultural San Francisco Bay area before a trip to Vietnam in 1986 awakened his taste buds to change.
"My introduction to Vietnamese food hooked me. I loved the layers of flavours and taste. The first thing I ate was the banh my (Vietnamese sandwich) – the cilantro, jalapeños, pickled vegetables. All the ingredients were so familiar yet so foreign. I fell in love with it, with Vietnam," he recalls.
And you can taste Geoffrey’s love for food in every bite of the Black Cat sandwich. First to hit is the beautiful taste of the curried lamb and, as your bite in, the bed of spring onions and pate underneath tells you this is a serious and happy marriage between cultures.
"A chef should create a menu that makes it hard for people to choose," says Geoffrey. "You should feel overwhelmed. That’s the daily goal: to challenge the customers with something fun. Everything is made from scratch, from sorbet to bread and even pickles and ketchup we make everything ourselves". I left Black Cat wishing I had five stomachs.
Xu with Bien Nguyen
One glimpse at 30-year-old Vietnamese-Australian Chef Bien Nguyen and you know he’s part of the young, hip, international crowd who have lifted Saigon to where it is now.
Bien puts his heart into his food with dishes such as the popular Vietnamese Chicken Herb Roulade. "I take a boneless piece of chicken and flatten it. Then I take a mixture of herbs and put it all in the mortar adding lime juice, salt, pepper and lemongrass until I’ve got a paste. I then fill the chicken thigh and roll it, tying it to hold its shape before roasting it. The Vietnamese like to eat fried chicken with salt, pepper and lime. So I’ve just combined the taste in a new way," explains Bien.
Another delicious dish is the heart of palm. "I put it on top of lentils, next to butternut squash in a sauce that is a tomato reduction with mixed herbs". The taste is nutty with a fine texture – a bit like biting through thousands of silk threads. This is fine dining indeed.
WHERE TO EAT
Cepage Wine Bar & Restaurant Lancaster Building, 22 Le Thanh Ton St, HCMC Tel: +848 823 8733, www.cepage.biz
Skewers Mediterranean Restaurant 9A Thai Van Lung Street, Ward Ben Nghe, HCMC Tel: +848 822 4798, www.skewers-restaurant.com
Black Cat 13 Phan Van Dat (Mac Thi Buoi), HCMC Tel: +848 829 2055
Xu Restaurant Lounge Level One, 71-75 Hai Ba Trung Street, HCMC Tel: +848 824 8468, www.xusaigon.com