Esta Eatery has hit the ground running. Chef Francis Thuan took plenty of inspiration from his adventures in different Saigon kitchens and has added lots of Asian twists to his flame-kissed menu at the restaurant that might be one of Saigon’s most exciting new openings.
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Back in August we met Francis Thuan. The chef told us about a new project, Esta Eatery, that he was busy working on. Still in their soft opening phase, foodies have already been flocking down this alley at 18bis Nguyen Thi Minh Khai to sample the flavoursome dishes the chef has been putting together. Of course, Francis couldn’t do it alone. With him along the way have been the other two co-owners Thang “Ryan” Nguyen and Thi “Matt” Ton.
The trio behind Esta Eatery
“Maybe we’re like the three musketeers”, Ryan, who is in charge of finances and marketing, laughs. He studied in the US for six years and worked in marketing and for different start-ups. “Basically, I did everything,” he smiles. But despite the opportunity for a green card in the States he upped sticks and returned to Vietnam while he still had the fire in him to do something adventurous. “I considered Esta Eatery a test of my ability,” he nods about the difficulty in splitting his time between his own project and his day job as product marketing manager for fintech company Liquid Global. “It’s been crazy working 16-hour days, every day, but this entrepreneur life is what I was longing for,” Ryan shrugs.
Matt took a different route here. Esta Eatery’s restaurant manager studied abroad in the US and Singapore. Then he picked up work experience in Bhutan and Australia. But, like Ryan, he left behind a good job and boundless opportunities to return to Vietnam. “I love innovation and challenges. Now everything is different and I’m required to learn constantly,” he admits.
Then there’s Francis Thuan Tran. A cook who came of age in the industry, who went from washing dishes to head chef. Calm and shy, nevertheless, Francis always harboured a dream to branch out on his own.
How Esta Eatery was born
“Until last June I’d never heard of Francis Thuan,” Matt remembers. The Esta Eatery site was originally intended to be offices. And with a speakeasy in the basement for after-work drinking sessions. “But then me and Ryan met Francis Thuan and started talking about the restaurant landscape in Saigon,” Matt adds. Immediately inspired by the conversation, the two stayed up late that night to sketch out a business plan for the restaurant that would become Esta Eatery.
“I remember the night before we met Francis again to present our ideas, Matt and I were very nervous,” Ryan laughs.
“We don’t have restaurant backgrounds. We just wanted to do what felt right to us. So to walk in front of an experienced chef like Francis was a little nerve-racking,” Ryan says laughing at the memory. Fortunately, the meeting went well, “and everything fell into place from there”.
Francis Thuan remembers feeling an immediate connection. “The first day I met these two and heard them talk about the restaurant, I just thought in my head: how could I find two people who are so similar to me,” the chef recalls.
The meeting left him excited and anxious. It was a risk. “The challenge was huge, but so was the potential,” he explains. Lots of the preparation was done while he was still head chef at Quince. “It’s exhausting doing new projects while delivering on your current project,” he says wide-eyed. But his heart told him to persevere at all costs.
Fusion cuisine (because it’s the best description they could think of)
The three co-owners call it fusion because they couldn’t think of a better word. “I guess that term makes it easy for people to understand,” Francis Thuan says.
And driven by the combined forces of these three musketeers Esta Eatery has been an instant hit. Francis Thuan has applied his wealth of knowledge about how to get the most out of his ingredients. And he’s employed the same flame-cooking approach he’s spent years perfecting.
The menu includes seasonal specialities like the smoked salmon with salmon roe, jalapeño dressing and cucumber. Then there’s the smoky burrata, salsa and house-made tomato togarashi where the Italian cow-milk cheese folds luxuriously when cut onto the complex, refreshing salsa and togarashi bed. Helping this is the fact that Vietnam is offering a greater selection of home-grown, high-end produce like this than ever. Most of it comes from Dalat – from big garden houses like The Farm House, Veggie, or Premier Food. Francis Thuan meticulously selects fresh, clean, tasty and quality organic ingredients. “Whatever is freshest is the best,” he says.
Esta Eatery is heavily inspired by the culinary melting pot of Melbourne, Australia. “Australia has everything: the seasons, the soil, which provide a lot of quality ingredients. That gives the chefs there a lot of room to use their imagination. And Vietnam is becoming the same…” Francis Thuan adds proudly.
But there are lots of other international reference points too. The smoky eel pate dish, was inspired by Japanese eel sushi rolls with their rich taste. The Iberico Duroc filet mignon is inspired by Spanish cuisine but has romesco sauce made from Hoi An peppers. And the BBQ cauliflower dish also has a strong Japanese influence with its miso sauce and furikake.
The influence of Chinese cuisine is clear in one of the diners’ and team’s favorite main dishes at Esta Eatery, grilled duck breast with broccoli and black garlic “puree”. “Beijing is famous for roasted duck so I took inspiration from that. The duck here, after cleaning, is marinated with typical Chinese spices like star anise, tangerine. and cloves, then air dried. This creates a crisp finish,” Francis Thuan explains.
In the kitchen, there are also chilis from Hue which he asked his family to help source and which he immediately decided to put on the menu. “This chili is thick, crispy, less spicy but very fragrant!” he explains, holding up a chili to show us.
Besides the comforting flavours, the venue has a homely feel. This renovated villa has a small pool and a distinctive red brick floor outside. Ryan and Matt wanted to keep the original “soul” of the house as much as possible, and add details such as the dome-shaped glass doors overlooking the kitchen, creating a simple but soft feeling, with references to elegant European architecture. “Comfort doesn’t just come from Francis Thuan’s dishes, but from the decor, the service, everything…” Matt adds finally.
Photos by Nam Tran Duy. Edited by David Kaye.