There’s this anonymous brown wooden door in a nondescript Binh Thanh alley. You push it open and suddenly you’re engulfed in jackets hanging from a clothes rail. Once you’ve gathered your bearings, you discover another door at the back of the wardrobe that leads into Phạm Hồng Toàn’s Tủ Bar.
Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt
The magic doesn’t stop there though. Inside, Tủ Bar is dark. Only the counter, in front of each of the 15 seats around the bar in the center, glows under spotlights. Then, 28-year-old Phạm Hồng Toàn appears like an apparition in the half-light; the perfect sharply-attired mixologist for this back-of-the-wardrobe netherworld.
And his Tủ Bar (‘tủ’ meaning closet or wardrobe) has a bit of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe about it, along with some of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks – maybe it’s the table lamps – a bit of Twin Peaks’ Black Lodge, and, according to Toàn, a bit of Gen Yamamoto, the Tokyo Bar where the proprietor, Yamamoto-san, serves seasonal set-cocktail menus to guests at his eight-seat bar.
But Tủ Bar is in bustling Binh Thanh, in the shadows of the City Garden apartment buildings. However, Tủ Bar is hidden down a quiet alley – perhaps the last place you’d expect to find such a refined cocktail bar. “The location reflects the concept,” Toàn, who lives close by and knows the area well, nods. “Tủ Bar is in a crowded part of town but at the same time it’s isolated and withdrawn.”
The Recurring Dream
“Before we created the concept, I had this recurring dream,” he remembers, “and it lasted for over a week – the same scene repeating.”
“Every night, I dreamed I was hosting just one guest in this dark island-style bar lit by dramatic lighting – just a carousel of people, arriving and leaving one by one. Some of them were strange, and each had a story to tell me. And it looked exactly like this,” he remembers.
Inspiration Comes From Joy And Pain
Magical doorways feature a lot in children’s literature. There’s the aforementioned C.S. Lewis classic, there’s Lynne Reid Banks’ The Indian In The Cupboard, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and many more.
“Is it weird,” Toàn asks sincerely, “that I themed this bar after the way I would escape tribulations and trauma as a child?” Not really, we reassure him, still trying to work it out ourselves too. Inspiration comes from both ends of the emotional spectrum.
Tortured artist Edward Munch said something like the same thing. “Art comes from joy and pain…but mostly from pain,” he complained.
Between Reality And Magical Worlds
As it was for lots of kids, dens, cupboards and wardrobes – somewhere enclosed and preferably with a door to bolt – were sanctuary. Any place protected from the chaotic and uncontrollable world outside. “I’m glad I’m not the only one,” Toàn smiles. “The wardrobe, for me too, always felt private and reassuring, safe but also mysterious. There, you could close your eyes, and drift between harsh reality and the magical worlds of your imagination.”
Toàn’s Tủ Bar is like that – a space that is protective and empowering, safe and satisfying. “It’s meant to be like that,” Toàn shrugs. “Tủ Bar was always intended to be a secure space where guests could escape from the troubles of their day-to-day lives.”
Drinks Made With Precision And Panache
It could all be a bit gimmicky – literally all front. Only, Toàn serves drinks with the kind of precision and panache you’d expect at the best bars anywhere.
Depending on his mood, for his Martinis he’ll switch between Tanqueray 10, for its gentleness, and Gin No.3, for its invigorating nature. Both gins will have been kept in the freezer at -24 degrees before mixing and instead of Dry Vermouth, he’ll use Fino Sherry to coat the Martini glass, and the mixing glass.
Or he’ll make guests a play on the Manhattan, an Usui Chi, which means thin blood in Japanese, and which contains Japanese blended whisky, shochu, some Italian amaro, and, to finish, a few drops of Islay Scottish whisky to bring out the smokiness of the cocktail.
And for summer, right now, maybe a Vecchio Padre, he recommends, made from Italian liqueurs and amaros, that has a light, bitter taste, and a long finish.
Like Gen Yamamoto, Tủ Bar is an omakase-style bar and so the menu follows the seasons. And each cocktail, unusually, comes with a delectable small bite created by the Tủ Bar chef. Some of them sit on a regal miniature wooden chair, others on a ceramic pillow.
“Oh, I had some good teachers,” Toàn says, brushing off our earlier compliment about how good Tủ Bar is with typical modesty. He worked for Pham Minh Tan, at his The Alley Cocktail Bar and Kitchen. And there was Dat Nguyen, at Rabbit Hole. “The biggest lessons were developing patience, observation, and the drive for improvement and self-learning,” Toàn recalls. Then, there was Toàn’s time at Con Voi Bar, in Thao Dien, which is where he met his future business partner.
Con Voi had become a word-of-mouth success. “We were busy and we had some loyal customers. But I still remember the first time he came in – a Manhattan, a Sazerac, and a shot of absinthe served Czech-style,” Toàn smiles. “We must have talked for over two hours – about bars and the industry – and then he left with the invite for lunch at Pizza 4P’s the following day.” And right there, they agreed to open Tủ Bar.
Timing Is Everything
The timing was fortuitous. Toàn was ready to give it all up. He worked at Con Voi in the evenings and spent his days reading and thinking. “I was reflecting on a lot of difficult things,” Toàn explains, “and I’d come to the conclusion I should give everything up, and go and live a monastic existence somewhere far away.”
When his partner-to-be had listened to his story, he simply thanked Toàn and decided that this was another reason they should open a bar together.
So, after emerging from some dark times and returning from the brink of packing it all in, and bearing his soul with this, his new bar, Toàn looks contented right now. “It’s true. I am so happy these days” he says looking around.
And his Tủ Bar has made us believe in magic again too.
Images by Nguyen Le for The Dot Magazine.