Saigon’s awash with great Japanese food. Every week, it seems, another izakaya opens. There’s two parts of town practically dedicated to rough-and-ready izakayas, late-night ramen, and opulent omakase – the endless lantern-lit alleys of Japan Town, roughly between Le Thanh Ton and Thai Van Lung, and Pham Viet Chanh Street, over in Binh Thanh. And young, savvy restaurateurs like Shozo Tsuruhara are driving the development helping to turn Saigon Japanese.
Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt
Chef Shozo Tsuruhara’s restaurants represent all sides of Japanese cuisine in Saigon, from affordable quick bites of sushi, up to immaculately presented Japanese fine-dining.
Nightly (and now at lunch) Sushi Tiger bumps with a Latin soundtrack as the team serve up plate after plate of cheap but tasty sushi to their guests standing around beer-crate tables or outside the window, in the alley itself.
Fume is entirely more refined. You feel it the moment you walk into its chic, corridor entranceway with the bails of hay stacked to the side, and the winding wooden staircase that creaks as you climb it, and the large wooden door at the top. “At Fume, we wanted to create a culinary journey. There, you can savor exquisite textures, scents, and flavors,” Shozo Tsuruhara explains.
And then, somewhere in between them, is Umenomoto, an umeshu-centric Japanese-tapas restaurant a couple of doors down from Sushi Tiger.
There, around two counters – the bar counter upstairs and the kitchen counter downstairs – Shozo Tsuruhara serves punchy plates of cuisine, often with cheeky names, the grilled asparagus and egg yolk ‘Melted In The Kiss,’ the umami-mushroom ‘Smush Your Heart’ and the ‘Heart Attack’ with chicken hearts and onion.
Then Shozo Tsuruhara pairs them with a dizzying array of Japanese plum wines. There are over 1,000 types of umeshu in Japan, which many folks might not know! So, why not open up a bar that’s all about this drink? After all, there’s already enough top-notch whiskey bars around here,” Shozo Tsuruhara says. “And we’ve been lucky,” Shozo Tsuruhara smiles modestly. “Locals and tourists alike have fallen in love with our fusion of Japanese and Vietnamese culture.”
And, finally, there’s Kemuri Donburi, Shozo Tsuruhara’s delivery-only restaurant that offers charcoal-grilled rice bowls.
But before we get into that, we backtrack a bit to ask how Shozo Tsuruhara got here.
You spent some time in Canada. Why did you go there?
I had always admired the United States and Canada, so I decided to spend a year working and traveling there. My first six months were spent in Canada, exploring the country. I worked for a while at one of the Guu izakaya restaurants, because, you know, ‘Guu is guuu’d!’
I then ventured across the border to the US for the second half of my journey. But Canada struck a chord with me. It’s a country with a perfect blend of nature and modernity, and they’re very welcoming towards Asians – I never felt any discrimination there. It’s the kind of place where I could see myself settling in the future.
Can you describe Saigon today in one sentence?
How did you first meet Nikichi Nagatsuyu? And what was the moment you decided to work together?
I first met Nikichi four years ago at a gathering for people in the restaurant industry. I’m trying to remember what event it was, or who introduced us, but I can’t recall! However, I do remember that when the initial wave of the coronavirus subsided in Vietnam, I received an invitation from him to meet up. And we started collaborating soon after!
I believe we make an excellent team as we share similar ideas and ways of thinking, complementing each other’s strengths and unlocking our full potential together.
Can you describe each of the restaurants you run in a few sentences for someone who’s never visited?
At Fume, modern Japanese cuisine awaits you in the heart of Saigon’s District 1! Upon entering, the bustling city outside fades away, and you find yourself in a cozy space, brimming with possibilities. My culinary philosophy, developed over the years, celebrates seasonal fish and other ingredients carefully imported from Japan to ignite your five senses.
At Umenomoto, we welcome guests to the only Japanese plum wine-oriented tapas bar in Saigon. Plus, we’re located in the heart of District 1, in the Japanese area between Thai Van Lung and Le Thanh Ton.
As you step in from the crowded alleys outside a unique and cool atmosphere greets you. That’s really what sets us apart. OK, that and the 87 imported varieties of Japanese plum wine, called umeshu, that we serve. We plan to increase that number to over 100 this year.
Alongside, try some dishes off our menu. Our staff are well-versed specialists with a deep knowledge of umeshu. They’re always ready to recommend the perfect fit for your palette. Our food menu, which I curated, revolves around umeshu, and dishes that pair perfectly with it. The result, I hope, is a transcendent Japanese tapas experience that is truly unforgettable. I also hope it opens a door to people who know umeshu but haven’t drunk it often and those who are new to it.
Kemuri Donburi is a restaurant that delivers charcoal-grilled rice bowls. There, we make a variety of rice bowls with beef, pork, chicken, and more, all served with an exquisite homemade sauce crafted through an original technique.
Our signature is our charcoal grill. This cooking method infuses our ingredients with an unforgettable smoky flavor that locals, Japanese, Vietnamese, and other foreigners find irresistible.
Our most beloved dish is the Kemuri Don, which offers charcoal-grilled beef, pork, and chicken, as well as chicken karaage and soboro. For those who focus on health and beauty, our signature Healthy Donburi features charcoal-grilled vegetables and chicken breast.
At first, we wanted to call it Sushi Police or Sushi Gangsters, but we settled on Sushi Tiger. The Lunar New Year of the Tiger was approaching after all.
Sushi Tiger, the first standing sushi bar in Saigon, is impossible to miss with its eye-catching tiger yellow exterior, bold signage, and prime corner location – once a ramen joint. It is perfect for those who want to enjoy sushi on-the-go, without sitting down for a long meal.
In Japan, it’s common to take a break before dinner to enjoy some sushi and beer at standing sushi spots. Often, after a night of drinking, locals seek out a hot bowl of ramen or some fresh sushi.
You can hangout at the standing counter, or slide up to one of the tables indoors, or even stand out in the alley at the open windows.
We serve top-quality, yet affordable, sushi. It’s perfectly seasoned so there’s no need to add soy sauce or wasabi. House sake, or Dasai, is served by the glass, and there’s Sapporo beers to quench your thirst as you stand shoulder-to-shoulder with your fellow diners. Now, we’re open for lunch too, and until midnight.
The Japanese food industry is often associated with traditionalism and age-old principles. However, restaurateurs like yourself, Tomo from Sushi Rei, your partner Nikichi Nagatsuyu, and Mizo from Yazawa bring a fresh, youthful energy to the scene. Do you identify with the preceding generation? Or do you make a deliberate effort to approach things differently?
There are moments when I do reflect on the wisdom my master imparted during training.
I learned the basics from many people when I was in Japan, but the person who changed my life as a chef was Mr. Hara, who I worked with in Singapore.
Right now, he’s the head chef at Tempura Uchitsu, in Hong Kong, which has been awarded two Michelin Stars.
So, for me personally, I’m not looking to break from the past, but rather find ways to modernize what we do while preserving cherished traditions. It’s exciting to embrace new challenges while honoring our roots!
How do you switch your mind to serving high-end Japanese cuisine at Fume, Japanese-style tapas at Umenomoto, and very affordable sushi at Sushi Tiger?
I encounter this challenge quite frequently! While thinking up the menu of Sushi Tiger, thoughts of Fume’s menu sometimes come to mind, despite the entirely different approach. However, it is critical to always keep in mind that customers of Fume desire an experience, customers of Umenomoto relish their dishes with plum wine, and Sushi Tiger should be fun and affordable, without skimping on quality.
Can you explain the concept of standing sushi to someone who’s never been to a standing sushi restaurant?
Standing sushi is a unique Japanese fast food where you indulge in sushi while standing. You visit this kind of restaurant to explore a range of delicious sushi options that offer a window into Japanese culture.
Sushi Tiger has a very bumping soundtrack of Latin music. Whose idea was that?
Those songs were chosen by Nikichi-san! But the idea is that it would be interesting if there were customers standing, eating sushi…and dancing!
Some of the most memorable elements of Fume are the hand-written menus and the dramatic presentation, like the sashimi served in the ice cave. What’s the most or craziest way you’ve presented cuisine there? And where do you get your ideas from?
At Fume, we craft each dish with care to offer guests nothing but the best, seasonal fare, like our signature straw-grilled fish: a delicacy that’s smoked and grilled right in front of you. As an avid foodie, I’m constantly inspired by new cooking concepts. My nocturnal musings often revolve around my past restaurant experiences which have tantalized my senses and taste buds.
And, by the way, the handwriting is done by Hiro, our manager. I have been working with him for more than 10 years, and he’s always been good at writing menus and paintings.
If you came to Fume as a guest, where would you sit and what would you order?
Take a seat at the counter and indulge in a plethora of Japanese delicacies.
From mouth-watering sashimi to delectable tempura, from tender Japanese Black beef to signature rice dishes…
With Umenomoto, you focus on umeshu. If you could choose one bottle to make someone love umeshu, which would you choose and why?
Plum wine can be made using various bases such as sake, whiskey, shochu, gin, and tequila. At our bar, we’ve also carefully crafted 22 unique plum wine cocktails you won’t find anywhere else.
But I can choose only one bottle to make someone love umeshu? Dassai is a well-known sake brand in Vietnam and Japan. That company made a plum wine for some events they took part in, in collaboration with the Japan Plum Wine Association. Actually, it’s no longer available and we are the only suppliers in Vietnam.
Each place – Fume, Sushi Tiger and Umenomoto – has a very distinct design. Can you tell us about the design brief and the completed look for each?
Our first step entails establishing a clear concept, whereby we strive to engender a restaurant with a design that fosters customer comfort. Sushi Tiger is resourceful, with reused packing crates for exterior decor, beer crates for tables, and a big tiger on the noren as you enter.
Fume, like the cuisine, is more refined, with a long entrance corridor with haystacks at one side and a winding staircase, and heavy wooden doors. Inside, it’s darkly lit with counter seating and a large dining room.
And Umenomoto should feel like a neighborhood hangout with counters upstairs and downstairs, with lots of chances to interact with the people you’re with, or with our staff.
For serial restaurant entrepreneurs like yourselves, you must have many projects in the pipeline. Could you share some with us?
The other day, I was a part of the Le Jardin Secret – Escoffier Exclusive Collaboration and worked with various chefs, Julien Perraudin from Quince, Sakal Phoeung from Le Corto and P’ti Saigon, Benoit Leloup from Clay, The Brix and Tinto, Adrien Guenzi from Lüne and Thao Na, who’s from Lavelle Library.
With Sushi Tiger, we did an event with Sake Central Saigon a couple of months ago. And we’ve collaborated with Banana Mama too, and the Japan Festival, that marked the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Vietnam and Japan, held in Park 23/9, District 1, in February.
So, I’ll be keeping that collaborative energy. We’ll do an event with Quince on May 17th. And in June, I’ve been invited to an event in Kyoto, Japan. It’s an event that combines the themes of fashion, sake, and cuisine, so it should be interesting!
When you’re not working, which restaurants and bars in Saigon would we find you at?
I got to lots of places, but Ha Ky Chicken Rice, located next to Quince at 69 Ky Con, is typically where I start my mornings. As for my favorite bar, that would undoubtedly be Yugen!
Imagine it’s 2027 (five years from now). What will Saigon’s F&B scene be like?
In the future, I envision that Saigon will boast a thriving restaurant scene with a variety of cuisines. The culinary standards will be highly refined, and I anticipate that there will be an increase in the number of Michelin and Asia Best 50 award-winning restaurants, resulting in intense competition.
And as for me? Within five years, personally, I aspire to establish a restaurant with those goals in mind too.