It’s mesmerizing and mouth-watering at the same time. The server lifts a slice of thin, high-quality, hand cut Wagyu and allows it the lightest of licks on the grill. She turns it over. Repeats. Folds it and delivers the piece of beef perfection to your plate. This is just part of the omakase experience at Yazawa Saigon.
Đọc bài viết bằng tiếng Việt
A delicate beef tartare arrives. Then two beef steaks. Then perfectly oval pieces of beef tongue. Then those thin slices of Wagyu, on this occasion from Kagoshima. And on and on. Each cut is so carefully prepared, and measured, you’re already pining for the next piece as soon as you’ve finished the last. Yazawa is the only restaurant in Vietnam doing this – serving the highest grade, unfrozen Japanese black Wagyu, A5. Japanese beef is graded A to C, A being the best. Then the number, from 1 up to 5, is based on key characteristics: marbling, color and brightness, texture and the fat.
Yazawa Saigon’s director Tadafumi Mizo is understandably obsessed with the product. Even after 20 years in the business, he still steps in to theatrically serve a course himself while excitedly explaining the uniqueness and origins of the meat on the grill. The restaurant’s design adds to the drama – there’s the bar that looks out to an ornate waterfall and pond, and then rough industrial concrete walls and pillars, slatted glass dividers and blocks of rusted steel and brickwork, and small, mysterious doorways that lead to VIP rooms.
“Guests have described it as like a fortress or a maze,” Mizo begins about his Joe Chikamori designed venue. You’d barely notice it as you pass by on Dien Bien Phu. And then you’re inside, exploring the twists and turns of the interior like the disorientating entrance to a Japanese castle. “Atmosphere is so important to a restaurant,” Mizo adds, “here, the space complements the whole dining experience.”
This is not the only Yazawa. The first one was in Singapore and opened in 2010: “The ambition was to have people from all over the world try Wagyu beef that was carefully selected and prepared by professionals.” And they’ve achieved it. Today there are Yazawa restaurants all over the world, in Beverly Hills, Milan, Kyoto and Tokyo. Mizo was manager at both Japan locations. “If you do anything, pursue it in earnest and to the highest level you can,” Mizo nods about the philosophy at Yazawa.
At Yazawa Saigon, he’s backed by Vietnamese master chef Phan Van Nung, who spent three years in Japan. And the level of service from their team is impeccable. “For a month, new staff can’t serve guests,” Mizo tells us. “They spend those four weeks learning about the product, understanding customer service and practicing grilling the meat. Plus, they must try everything on the menu. That way, they can articulate the story behind each dish to guests confidently, with first-hand experience. At the end of their training, I test them. And only if they pass can they take care of guests…”
Does Japanese beef have unique characteristics?
Japanese Black Wagyu is the main breed of cattle producing Wagyu meat in Japan. The name Wagyu, established in the 1940s, actually refers to four types of purebread cattle, Kuroge, or Japanese Black, Akage, Nihon Tanakaku and Mukaku. I think regardless of region, producers are proud of their beef. And to me, Japanese Wagyu is different from say Australian Wagyu. You can see it in the texture, color and quality of the meat.
You can order one dish and one drink from your menu at Yazawa Saigon. Which would you choose, and why?
I would choose our Yazawa-yaki, a style of traditional sukiyaki, and a glass of red wine, probably a young Pinot Noir. Individually, they’re great. But paired up, they go together so well.
The collection of sake glasses is very special. Which would you choose to drink sake from?
They’re made by wonderful Japanese craftsmen. I think your choice of glass is one way to individualize your experience – the same with the menu. Lots of people take the omakase menu the first time, then order their favorites off the menu the second time. For me, I always choose a different kind of glass depending on my mood and the type of sake I’m enjoying.
Is it true cows in Japan drink beer and listen to music?
Haha, I think you should ask this question to a Japanese farmer. I wouldn’t want to mislead you other than to say there are various breeding methods.
Does more pressure come with serving premium products?
Truly, I don’t feel pressure anymore. We’ve become confident in the product we serve and the way we serve it. The meat is brought unfrozen from Japan under strict temperature control. And guests have immediately fallen in love with it. I was concerned at first that people in Vietnam might consider the meat fatty, but these are fine fats, and they quickly took to it and a lot of our guests come after hearing word-of-mouth recommendations. Of course, service is a part of that.
When I first started out in the industry, guests would ask me for a type of beer that wasn’t on the menu. I’d sneak round to a nearby convenience store to buy it, just to make them happy. These days, it’s ingrained in our staff to not say no easily. For vegetarians, we serve a special vegetarian tempura. During anniversaries, a special dessert. Often guests don’t order it, the staff discovers it’s a special occasion while talking to them…
Finally, who would be around the table at your dream dinner party? And who is cooking?
Easy. My family and dearest friends. I would cook. Even though I’m not a chef, cooking helps you to understand the process more deeply and it’s a way to get inspiration for dishes that might one day make it to the menu.
Photos by Nghia Ngo.