If lockdown already seems like a distant memory, a look at the shuttered shops along the city’s streets is a reminder of the devastation wreaked by that virus. Starved of customers, lots of places closed. Some permanently. Others focused on reinventing their business model. Or reimagining their menu…
Đọc bài viết bằng tiếng Việt
Hit especially hard were the places that opened at the start of the year. Imagine: just as you flip the open sign the city becomes a ghost town. So, this guide is a tribute to the survival instincts of our favourite new places. It’s also a reminder to go out and give thanks both that we’re able to drink and dine, and to support a shaken industry back to its feet.
Ngoc Suong Seafood & Bar
In Short: Seafood, served fresh.
Ngoc Suong is a seafood institution. If you haven’t eaten in one, you will have seen the windmill fronted restaurants around town and the heartily stuffed family and friends exiting, smiles fixed on faces. The family behind Ngoc Suong have been doing this since 1955. But fourth-generation chef Le Quoc Vinh decided a little evolution was in order. Enter Ngoc Suong Seafood & Bar.
It has the trappings of standard seafood joints — courtyard seating, communal tables — except here it’s all taken to another level. There’s elegant lobster-pot-booths, rustic napkins and staff uniforms and refined tableware, gurgling fish tanks, and rave-y projections…and there’s even a DJ lending a backing track to the dining. It could all come off as unnecessary if Vinh hadn’t nailed his seafood dishes with aplomb (he did study at Le Cordon Bleu in the States after all).
Fresh Miyagi oysters for 40K each come first. Then the fried corn (inspired by roadside bap xao) and bone marrow follows. It’s sweet and umami and addictive. So is the truffle soy assorted sashimi. And then it’s a blur, as dish after dish delivers, served impeccably and accompanied by an icy bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.
There’s even an enlivening and unexpected breeze that seems to kick up from the river a few blocks over that lends it all a beach club vibe…only without the beach. And if there’s any doubt this is still a family affair, Vinh points out that the DJ over there is his 19-year-old brother.
Lola Restaurant & Bar
In Short: Disco brunches and hip happy hours beside the park.
The location’s misleading. Pham Ngu Lao Street is synonymous with the chaotic backpacker area. But at this less-explored end of the street there’s tranquil green views, convivial traffic-free outdoor seating (sometimes accompanied by an eclectic DJ set), and one day, before too long, a metro station a stone’s throw away.
Co-owners Fabien and Yorrick are quick to remind future guests on their Facebook feed that they’re “away from the frenzy of the hostel area.” It couldn’t be more true. Lola is like a cool Parisian bar beside the park. Spirit bottles glitter from the insouciantly designed bar. Upstairs there’s a restaurant area. And a breezy balcony. But they opened only five weeks before the city went into lockdown.
Thankfully, the comeback’s begun. They’ve launched weekend disco brunches “with the best free-flow offer in Saigon”. It’s true, free-flow Bloody Marys, Sorbellinis, and wine are only 250K. And every evening glasses during the happy hour come with a tapas plate — when we visited a hearty slice of Parma ham wrapped around a hunk of soft cheese. There’s tempting tapas too: aubergine caviar, sweet potato and pork tortellini, chicken tagine, mussel ‘escabeche’…
“How would I describe Lola?” Fabien asks. “A restaurant and cocktail bar with a feminine twist and contemporary Mediterranean fusion dishes, tapas, creative craft cocktails, a sophisticated wine selection…and it comes with our Lola good time guarantee…”
In Short: Coffee good enough to get us over losing Bunker.
Your Hanoian friends would have been instantly excited to learn that Cafe Yen had taken over the already stylin’ Bunker Bed & Breakfast yard. They didn’t do too much by way of renovations – a bamboo shade to screen guests, a few more plants and a switched up seating arrangement. But it’s the coffee that is the big draw. Luckily they waited till after the lockdown was eased to open up in Dakao – home of our first Wink Hotel and easily one of the coolest parts of town.
The prices are reasonable: cold brew or cà phê kem phê trứng (black coffee with egg cream) for 40K, or the classic cà phê nâu (black coffee with condensed milk) for 30K, and the vibe convivial.
In Short: Unflappable Japanese-style mixology.
Dat Nguyen’s Yugen Bar opened in late January and was just getting into its stride as hibernation hit. Not that the unflappable mixologist and owner seemed to care. Dat simply took it as an opportunity to perfect the classic cocktails they serve even more, some of which he sent out as delivery orders during lockdown. And to onboard one of the best bartenders in Danang that he tempted over from the coastal city’s Bar Libre.
The design, by ShapeUs Studio, is distinctive too. The bar is like a long tube, for starters, because the name and the design reference the strive for cocktail perfection, like the unattainable perfect circle. There’s also the stylish custom racing green bar seats and a classic long wooden counter. Plus it’s in an alley in an up-and-coming part of town – the area around Le Thi Rieng Street.
Mangetsu Thai Van Lung
In Short: Saigon’s favourite izakaya 2.0.
Places have their moment. Shortly after opening day word-of-mouth gets around, people flock. A month or two later, after one or two disappointing visits, the audience disperses for somewhere else new. Mangetsu had its moment too: when a hip, creative, local and expat crowd joined the Japanese salarymen in this smoky, cramped, but brilliant basement-speakeasy-izakaya around 2015.
Only, Mangestu’s moment refuses to end. Maybe because owner Takanobu Tani packs more flavour into his small-plate cuisine than most restaurants manage in a whole dish. Even less sophisticated servings like their sticky Danang skate wing with a dollop of cleansing mayo are perfect drinking food.
So, finally, last December, having turned away enough diners nightly to fill the entire upstairs hotel whose name, Azumaya, is often confused as the bar’s own name, they’ve found an overflow venue 100 meters away on Thai Van Lung. Only the second Mangetsu is more than extra seats. The decor, double-room set up, stone altars to their still excellent izakaya dishes, might make it a preferable choice to the original. For now, there’s one or two seats left some evenings…
13% Wine Bistro Saigon
In Short: Wine and mezcal from Singapore shophouse bar owners.
Winebars, shophouse style. Every one of 13% Gastro Wine’s Singapore locations is upstairs in a “heritage venue Lion City shophouse”. Here, they’ve taken out a building on Ngo Van Nam, opposite another new opening, Oskar Bistro. Their USP is that they identify and import exclusive or just plain unusual wines themselves. Which they hope to start shipping into Vietnam as soon as things are back to normal.
The team also have an artisanal Mezcal distillery in Mexico, Machetazo Mezcal, producing 100% handcrafted agave spirit. “The name,” Lucas Fays, one of the original six-man Singapore team who’s moved over to start the South East Asia operations, “refers to the machete or machetazo labourers use to harvest the agave”. We wonder about the name 13% too, guessing it relates to the wine they import and sell. “Right, it’s the average ABV of wine, but also this kind of superstitious unspoken number…” Lucas continues. They’re planning to open a mezcal-Mexican street food bar on the rooftop.
Downstairs there’s an Argentinian half-charcoal, half-wood grill the chef is loading with rosemary-marinated Iberico pluma (a special cut of Iberico pork loin), cumin marinated free-range chicken, beef tenderloin, and octopus, that you can pair with their gratin potato thyme, fava beans with fresh herbs, 13% fries, and a bottle of wine — starting at just 550K. Or enjoy wine by the glass and a charcuterie or cheese board after leaving your downtown office. Having pushed back opening to post-corona, Lucas is excited to be finally welcoming guests…
In Short: Bali-inspired concept-kitchen-pool-vibe.
OK, Thursday’s Child had a head start. They opened towards the end of ‘19, before the first signs of the virus were detected. The Korean owners, Choi Da Hea and Lee Joohuyng, were hit hard all the same. But through sheer Instagramable-ness and pet-friendly come-to-bed eyes (there’s even a pet menu and upcoming pet events), Thursday’s Child is bouncing back quick with their ambitious concept-kitchen-pool-vibe.
Maybe you too have watched the sun go down from the terrace at Potato Head Bali and thought, “I’m going to open something like this one day”. Choi Da Hea and Lee Joohuyng did too. Only they followed through with the idea, and Thursday’s Child was born in District 2.
OK, it’s not quite on the scale of Potato Head but you can definitely feel the beach club vibes and Balinese influences. And, in case you were wondering, it’s named after the nursery rhyme-fortune telling verse that predicts a child’s character by their day of birth. According to the rhyme, “a Thursday’s child is full of grace” – that’s right, one of the owners is a Thursday’s child…
In Short: Life-affirming cold-pressed juices, smoothies, salads, and sandwiches.
Staying in District 2, Nectar is another place that slowly came to life during lockdown. If you live in Thao Dien, you’d have noticed the minimal white space slowly emerging from behind the construction tarpaulin during April. Now open, the Antonio De Torres design is revealed in full. There’s seating facing the buzz of Thao Dien Street, a brightly coloured wall with the brand’s name and colours, and a counter with racks of sustainably packaged juices and salads. But you don’t need to know any of that if you’re one of the many people already preferring to dial-up Nectar Vietnam’s life-affirming food as a lunch delivery.
Nectar Vietnam is Swedish-Vietnamese actor and producer Kim Ly’s project (we interviewed Kim Ly back in October about his favourite movie soundtracks). And actually, this is Nectar’s second spot after a low-key launch on Vo Van Tan about a year ago. As you’d expect there are lots of Scandinavian touches – that minimal design, the flat rye bread sandwiches (from 120K), and pure cold-pressed juices, like the Heart Beet (with beet, pineapple, carrot, lime, and ginger), Melonade (with rock melon, pineapple, guava, cucumber, and chia seed) for 65K.
MAD Wine Bar
In Short: Same MAD vibe, new satellite location.
By now, it’s safe to call MAD House a District 2 institution. With a menu barely changed since inception six years ago, the spot stays relevant with its breezy District 2 vibes, fresh ingredients, and solid service.
Distict 2 has changed a lot since MAD House first opened in their side street off Nguyen U Di. Xuan Thuy Street is a good example. There’s Pasteur Street and Bia Craft Artisan Ales, a Maison Marou Thao Dien, Sushi Yen and a Coffee House, all opening in the last year or two.
So, the MAD House team with restaurant manager Mary Vu as new partner decided to set up a satellite bar on Xuan Thuy too. Here, they’ve ramped up the hygge, “the Danish obsession with getting cosy”, in the interior (co-owners Camilla and Casper are Danish after all), and they’re offering well-priced wine and dine packages, like their mixed cold cut and cheese platter and sourdough bread, dessert for two, and a bottle of wine for VND1 million.
Koheis Bar – Cocktails and Tapas
In Short: Legendary Shanghai-based Japanese mixologist shows his face in Saigon.
April’s social distancing taught us a lot: how to cook better and how to make better drinks (or to order them in as deliveries, at least) as our living rooms became our restaurants and cocktail lounges. Koheis Bar – Cocktails and Tapas is keeping the spirit alive. Proprietor, Kohei Yamamoto, is calling it: “Japanese attention to detail in your (favourite new) living room.”
When we arrive dappled sunlight floods the old-apartment entranceway, the door handle is embossed with Kohei’s profile, there’s a cabinet full of Cohibas and Montecristos — courtesy of Saigon Cigar Club — and an intimate six-seat bar and beyond sofas and welcoming leather seats.
We wonder how Kohei feels that his face is everywhere: the door, the coasters, the menu. “I guess people can vent their anger on me or do weird inappropriate things to me…” he murmurs drifting off into dark thoughts.
He brightens up recalling his career so far. “I’m an F&B dude, originally from Tokyo, and people in the world have come to know me as a famous drinker!” our host laughs. Self-deprecating introductions aside, he set up a number of Shanghai’s top bars and restaurants: Y’s Table Bar and Kitchen, El Coctel, El Ocho, Bikini…
The El Coctel time was “life-changing”. He met sexy chef Willy Trullàs Moreno who assigned him to the “bad-ass-crazy-busy Japanese cocktail lounge” El Coctel in the French concession. “The highlight of my career,” he smiles, before reminiscing about the cocktails they made for food pairings, with tea, with local ingredients…
Back to Willy. The Barcelona-born chef co-founded Tomatito and Bandido here over the course of the last couple of years. He introduced Kohei to his business partners who run neighbouring Brothers Boutique Men’s Salon. And Kohei left Shanghai, where’s he’s been since 2008, for this exciting new start.
His one-page menu is fun and affordable at 150K for all cocktails. There are Kohei’s favourites, like the refreshing and fruity I Am F*&%kin’ Hot whose name, Kohei insists, you have to shout loudly to be served. There are specials too like Kohei’s Old Fashioned that adds chocolate bitters to the prohibition-era recipe, and a ‘My Friends’ section dedicated to his besties: there a Gin and Tonic he perfected for his hungover chef friends, and a Martijn’s Aperitivo for Martijn Vermaire, Brother’s owner.