Where does an expatriate eat Thanksgiving dinner when it’s being served half a world away? …
It’s Thanksgiving week back in the United States, my home country. I have indelible memories of family feasting — of roast turkey, its juices locked in by its crispy skin; of moist stuffing and mashed potatoes with savory gravy; of candied yams and green beans and cranberry sauce; and especially of mom’s freshly baked apple pie with vanilla ice cream.
This year, of course, health concerns have curtailed many family gatherings in North America. And I’m in Vietnam, far from the gobble of turkey farms. But living in Vietnam doesn’t sentence a foreign national to a diet of only soup and noodles.
That’s especially true in cosmopolitan Ho Chi Minh City, a metropolis of about 13 million people where a foodie can find pretty much whatever he or she wants. And I plan to eat well for this and other holidays.
Duck is a worthy replacement for turkey. No doubt, I will enjoy it at Quince Eatery, recently named Vietnam’s best restaurant by Vietcetera magazine. Located in the gritty Nguyen Thai Binh ward of HCMC’s District 1, it is blessed with the culinary talents of French-born chef Julien Perraudin — himself the magazine’s “chef of the year” — and a trove of young talent who someday soon will make names for themselves.
The menu features plates like wagyu steak bavette and whole roasted mackerel (in the US$28 to $39 range). In particular, Perraudin’s aged Barbary duck magret, cooked medium rare, is superb. I’ve ordered it twice, with pickled cherries and a stir of parsnip purée and … and I will order it again.
A fig-and-beetroot salad is one of my favorite sides. And desserts are, as the saying goes, “to die for,” whether that means baked Camembert cheese or house-made ice cream with crushed honeycomb, yuzu cream and blood-orange syrup.
Ambience is modern rustic, service is appropriately attentive, and the wine list is strong in European vintages, especially, French, Spanish and Italian.
Before or after dinner, the Madam Kew cocktail lounge is just upstairs from Quince. It was launched earlier this year by a former Russian death-rock drummer named Ivan Shenevskiy; he has since moved on to new projects, but his imagination lives on. Madam Kew recreates the ambience of Shanghai in the 1930s. I am charmed by the open mezzanine windows where, on weekend nights, models lounge on divans reminiscent of opium beds.
A Viet classic
One of the city’s finest Vietnamese restaurants is a short stroll from here. Anyone who is enamored with Saigon street food, who thinks it represents the pinnacle of this country’s culinary achievements, owes him or herself a dinner at Bếp Nhà Lục Tỉnh. My friend Anna took me to this inner-city garden, and I was delighted.
A native Vietnamese, Anna did all the ordering. We began with deep-fried prawn spring rolls. We followed that with a green mango salad with crispy anchovy, and grilled beef on lemongrass skewers. The climax was dessert: green Banh Duc cake with palm sugar.
Bếp Nhà isn’t easy to find. It’s packed into a street that includes a Malay-Indonesian mosque and the offices of the English-language Saigon Times, as well as a pair of high-end nightclubs. And it’s around the corner from a Spanish tapas restaurant, Jibu, that I promise myself to visit in the very near future.
There are also some intriguing bars in this neighborhood, include Qilin, a second-story Hong Kong-style lounge, and Chinatown Heritage, a young Vietnamese hipster joint. If you don’t normally associate tattoos, piercings and hair dye with Asian culture, guess again.
Another establishment that I highly recommend is the Octo Tapas Restobar, just a half-block from the iconic Bitexco Financial Tower.
Executive chef Albert Suárez, born and raised in Barcelona, offers a weekly changing menu that always includes Spanish ceviches and croquetas, but also focuses on fresh seafood and imported meats. If the chilled watermelon gazpacho is available, don’t say no.
With its third-floor perspective and open kitchen seating, Octo is a popular wine bar with a nice international selection. The restaurant also has an ambitious guest chef program. A recent guest, for instance, was Mexican chef Ricardo Luján, now at the Azerai resort in Can Tho, in the heart of the Mekong Delta. Gourmet Latin cuisine is a real treat in tropical Southeast Asia.