Like any good garden, Summer Experiment has taken some time for the Layla Eatery & Bar team to cultivate. Now open, the Saigon craft cocktail bar’s bright, breezy menu offers page after page of tempting elixirs and next-level craft cocktails. “I don’t believe in signature sections of cocktail menus,” Jay Moir muses, “these are all our new Summer Experiment signatures…” It’s been worth the wait.
Read on in Vietnamese
“Here, it’s summer all year round,” Jay Moir, alcohol pharmacist and one of the brains behind Layla Eatery & Bar and now Summer Experiment, smiles. “Which I guess is a good excuse to drink every day…” he adds with a mischievous laugh.
Behind the bar, on the 2nd floor of the building at 77-79 Ly Tu Trong, a tank of bubbles overflows. A bartender stirs a mixture in a large copper pot as plumes of smoke billow out. Another is filling a watering can with a brightly coloured liquid. And in the corner a waitress snaps a polaroid of a dating couple who just ordered a gin cocktail.
“Taking craft cocktails to the next level”
We resist the temptation to call them Summer Experiment signatures within earshot of Jay Moir. Because Jay, Harper’s Bazaar Vietnam’s mixologist of the year, is right. Summer Experiment’s Cloud 9 being topped with those bubbles, the 365 Days Of Summer sharing cocktail served in a watering can, the Milk Batch Baby being made in the copper pot, and the Bees On Your Knees being served in an elaborate China cup that the waitress is busy attaching the polaroid photo to are all signatures.
And so are the other 27 creative cocktails at Summer Experiment (there’s also six “mood starters”, 16 classic cocktails, and 3 mocktails to choose from).
“At Summer Experiment we’re trying to take craft cocktails to the next level,” Jay Moir continues matter-of-factly. And on first evidence, Summer Experiment looks like a game-changer for Saigon’s blossoming cocktail bar scene.
It also looks like being a huge few months for the team that brought award-winning Layla Eatery & Bar to Saigon. Besides Summer Experiment they will open Save Water, a wine bar, in the same heritage building as Layla, sometime early next year. “We have it written on the coasters at Layla Eatery & Bar, ‘Save Water, Drink More,’ and so it seemed a straightforward choice for the name of our wine bar. You’ll see the same cheeky tributes to alcoholic beverages at Summer Experiment. The coasters are a good example. “Alcohol: some of the best times you never remember”, “According to chemistry, alcohol is a solution”, and “And I drink to myself, what a wonderful world”, they read.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Save Water will come later. First, let’s focus on Summer Experiment. And here, Jay Moir, Annie Vu and the team have found a building just like Layla’s with the same nondescript entrance (watch out for the sign for Les Saigonaise which is a floor below). The same endless staircase. And through the imposing door, it feels like Layla too. There’s the bar seating. The outside smoking area. Except it’s smaller, more composed, and more confident.
And this time the location is within walking distance of Ben Thanh Market, exciting new openings like Sol Kitchen + Bar and Thai izakaya Kin Dee, as well as established favourites like East West Brewing Co.
Re-hydration with all the kicks
Sitting on the bar stools with their long, winding, organic legs we flick through the elaborate menu. And we wonder aloud how long it took to put all this together. “It’s taken almost a lifetime,” Jay laughs. But he’s quick to elaborate: “Honestly, ideas come constantly and we had to sit down and sift through them to make this menu — some were discarded and some we kept.” There are tributes to the Layla team too. The cocktail that won bar manager Thep Dinh the Diageo World Class Vietnam prize a few months ago is featured. The Melon of Steel with Ketel One, and lots of watermelon — watermelon pickle juice, watermelon soda, dehydrated watermelon mist, pickled watermelon rind and even watermelon seeds — is an ode to the zero waste movement. And it tastes beautifully bubbly and bright with a little spiciness.
As well as some cool cocktail descriptions there’s lots of fun illustrations. By the Breakfast at Tiffany’s cocktail write-up is an illustration of a group of absolutely fabulously inebriated ladies swinging champagne bottles. In the “Re-hydration with all the kicks” section a cartoon mule slurps on a Moscow Mule-style cocktail. And watch out as well for psychedelic sketches of rabbit holes, a purple potato pirate and peak-era Mick Jagger.
Lots of the creative craft cocktails feature on the happy hour menu. At 99K each between 5pm and 8pm Monday to Saturday, expect Summer Experiment to fill up early.
Into the Summer Experiment garden
With such a youthful bar and restaurant scene, Saigon constantly hops between new trends. Craft beer caught a major upward trajectory three or four years ago. Then speakeasies seemed to be opening up every week. And the next trend looks like being bars (and restaurants) that have strong cohesive concepts.
If that’s the case, Summer Experiment is on point. From the menu to the watering can shared cocktails to the herb garden on the Layla-like balcony, Summer Experiment keeps delivering positive sunkissed horticultural vibes. And the pots of smoking cocktail mixes and foaming martini glasses only add to the experimental feel. “In a few months this will all be over-growing with greenery,” Jay says as we step outside onto the already verdant balcony. We brush our hand through sprigs of fragrant sprigs of rosemary and basil.
The craft cocktail bar Summer Experiment is part of an emergence of new Vietnamese establishments confidently exploring their identity while incorporating lots of local ingredients — like T.U.N.G Dining in Hanoi or Anan Restaurant (which has been around for a little longer) and Nhau Nhau bar.
Not that Summer Experiment only do cocktails. Fittingly for a summer-themed bar, there’s five white and six red wines by the glass, and one rose and two sparkling wines (and an extensive selection of wines by the bottle). All with a heavy tilt towards Jay’s home country of Australia.
“Well, we did warn you that you’d have a great time,” Jay shrugs unapologetically as we get ready to leave. And they did it in the most impressive way possible.
Photos by Nam Tran Duy and Khooa Nguyen.