Mac Thi Buoi Street. The connecting road that cuts across Dong Khoi, Hai Ba Trung and Nguyen Hue is home to fading hotels like the Huong Sen but also Saigon restaurants that helped change the face of the city’s F&B scene – Ratcha Room, Stoker, RuNam Bistro. Now, another restaurant on Mac Thi Buoi is raising the standard for restaurants in Saigon: The Monkey Gallery Dessert Bar & Dining.
Read on in Vietnamese
This monkey-minded food-as-fine-art space is the work of three entrepreneurs, Duy Phan, Thanh Tung, Thanh Liem and Head Chef Viet Hong. And they were all born in 1992, the year of the monkey.
It’s still new for the city – a dining room and dessert bar in the same restaurant. But the pioneering model seems to be working. During our visit three months after their opening The Monkey Gallery Dessert Bar & Dining is as busy as anywhere on Mac Thi Buoi. “Eat just enough and eat delicately,” Liem begins about The Monkey Gallery Dessert Bar & Dining’s philosophy.
They call their restaurant a gallery (rather than eatery or any other trending terms used to refer to a place to eat out). “We want every dish to be a work of art,” head chef Viet Hong explains.
The Japan-inspired minimalist interior, conceived by Duy, helps give the place a gallery-feel too. The simple design also puts the vibrant dishes front and centre and turns the attention on the chefs in the open kitchen and on the mixologists and servers in the dessert bar. It’s something like a performance art piece.
Turning a dining room into an exhibition space
“Japanese minimalism is a big influence,” Duy nods about The Monkey Gallery’s design. Outside, you barely realise The Monkey Gallery Dessert Bar & Dining is a restaurant at all on first glance – maybe an architect owned pied-à-terre or something.
But inside, the elegant design style developed by Duy and the “monkeys from ‘92” reveals itself. Walking through the three-floor “exhibition hall” bamboo trees line walkways, walls are accented with neon lights and there are bunches of carefully arranged flowers that punctuate the simple grey stage. We go to take a seat at the top floor counter when Duy adds a warning. “They’re heavy,” he warns gesturing to the chairs. He’s right.
They’re another element of the design, like the delicately thin Japanese glassware used for the desserts or the rustic ceramics used for the dishes coming out of the kitchen, that take a little longer to notice. “This is a gallery after all…” Duy reminds us.
Contemporary Fine Art Meets Fine Dining
The first thing the team did once the concept was forming was to remove traditional job titles. Out went “waiter”, “barista”, “mixologist”, and “cook”. In came “gallery attendants” – the people helping guests enjoy their experience – and “artists” – the creators of the edible artworks at The Monkey Gallery Dessert Bar & Dining.
“There’s two reasons for this,” Liem continues. “First, it builds on the art gallery theme. Second, it reminds our staff of their greater purpose.” The co-founder was inspired by service models he experienced while working in the industry in Australia. However, here they had to train lots of the team from scratch.
“They were like blank paper,” head chef (and artist) Viet Hong nods. “Luckily they’ve not been afraid of hard work,” he adds about a tough three months working 14 hours a day that has turned amateurs into kitchen professionals who are on their way to mastering their craft. “I think this is the greatest achievement any chef can accomplish,” Viet Hong adds proudly.
Viet Hong has been in kitchens since 2010. He’s worked in five-star hotels like the Intercontinental Saigon which made a big impression upon him. So did his 2016 scholarship to study in France – still regarded as the capital of world cuisine. There he worked directly with chefs from some of the country’s most esteemed Michelin-starred restaurants – Le Table Marine et Végétale’s Alexandre Couillon, Masahiro Moriya at Le Bien Amie Paris and Atsushi Tanaka at A.T. who once said “For me, cooking is an artform”, a quote that neatly sums up the philosophy of The Monkey Gallery Dessert Bar & Dining too.
“But the biggest lessons were getting to grips with the technical aspects of preparing world-class cuisine,” Viet Hong adds about his time in France. “Plus cooking with heart,” he adds pointing to his chest. The combination of these two things “turns simple ingredients into superstars.”
Following his time there, at FERRANDI Paris, Viet Hong continued his culinary education by heading to Japan. “The interesting thing is that in Japanese cuisine, raw materials account for around 90% of the success of any dish,” he remembers. “Words can’t do it justice,” he recalls passionately, “and, for me, no technique is comparable to it…”
But back in Vietnam, the same range of fresh ingredients simply weren’t available. “Lots of the products I was presented with were imported and had been frozen,” Viet Hong shakes his head. So he started exploring local markets, identifying what was fresh, what was good. “And then combining French techniques with the Japanese philosophy of worshipping ingredients to make dishes you can’t find anywhere else.”
Setting Themselves Up For Success
Another of The Monkey Gallery Dessert Bar & Dining’s bold moves is to only offer set menus. “We did plan to offer à la carte…” Viet Hong says about the intention to conform to Vietnamese tradition. “But when diners in Vietnam order à la carte they tend to still share dishes in the same way they would usually…especially when dining in groups,” he adds. “I want our guests to experience the entirety of the dish they’ve ordered.”
After a month-long test period, the team decided to commit to the set menu idea. However, unlike at other restaurants where you only have one fixed option, during dinner the ‘artists’ and ‘gallery attendants’ at The Monkey Gallery Dessert Bar & Dining will listen to your preferences and advise you on one of their four choices of appetizers, soups, main courses and desserts. (They also now offer a business lunch too.)
We wonder what we should order. “I can’t say,” he shrugs. “The most popular dishes are Xíu mại rau răm, a Chinese-style pork dumpling dish with Vietnamese herbs, our take on a tomato soup, our miso cod-inspired cod with chao – a fermented Vietnamese bean curd condiment – and, for dessert, our mango ice cream with semolina and coconut juice. But, Viet Hong is quick to point out, “Different dishes appeal to different guests.” A lot like real art works.
The Xíu mại rau răm dish is one of the best representations of The Monkey Gallery Dessert Bar & Dining’s cuisine. “I personally like Chinese food,” Viet Hong admits. And inspiration for the dish struck when he was eating snails, or ốc, at a street food restaurant. The rau răm really accentuated the flavour of the snails. After lots of trail versions, his pork dumpling dish saw the light of day using bulot snails often found in the South of France combined with coriander sauce and rau răm. The dish is much more than an interpretation of a Chinese classic. “It’s a little Italian, a little Chinese, a little French, a little Vietnamese…” Viet Hong laughs, “and the creative combination, I hope, will make your taste buds burst.”
For the tomato soup, he used a technique to extract the flavour of the tomatoes into a clear broth that he learned from a Japanese chef. “The two main ingredients are high-quality tomatoes…and patience,” he smiles.
But he’s most proud of the cod dish. Chef Nobu Matsuhisa made miso cod internationally famous, and much copied. Here, Viet Hong switches the miso for the fermented tofu chao that’s maybe even better than the combination of miso and cod. “It foregrounds the flavour of the fish even more which gives guests this really familiar but also a really unique taste,” he adds.
Then there are the desserts. While lots of restaurants treat the final course like an add-on, here it’s key to the experience. The semolina and mango is a good example. The dessert is inspired by traditional Thai and Vietnamese desserts but it’s ‘modernised’ using the French siphon technique. “You still get the sweet and sour taste of tropical mangoes, the freshness of the coconut milk and the fat of semolina but in a different form. The mango takes on this creamy state, the coconut is a foam and there’s a little acidity from the passion fruit,” Viet Hong elaborates.
The Future Of The Monkey Gallery Dessert Bar & Dining
“All this,” Tung says looking around, “has been to prepare for January 2020”. Tung is the CEO and co-founder of Vietnamese fashion brand Dottie. And he’s been using that retail experience to build The Monkey Gallery Dessert Bar & Dining brand. Including planning for big things for January and beyond.
“These three months we’ve been refining the concept, developing the team and thoroughly testing out the menu,” he says. That done, at the start of 2020, they plan to push the concept even further. “There’ll be a 15-course tasting menu that looks beautiful and tastes delicious…but much more than that, it will elicit strong emotions in our guests – especially the Vietnamese ones who’ll be reminded of their childhoods and the past with cuisine that is uniquely modern, creative and local,” he smiles finally.
Photos by Nam Tran Duy and Khooa Nguyen.