Uncompromised Japanese food in downtown Saigon
When Japanese restaurant Ebisu (3bis Mac Dinh Chi, D1) opened its doors in early 2011, it had a goal simple to say but a challenge to achieve – to offer the most authentic Japanese dining experience it could.
Two and a half years later, Japanese comprise about 70 percent of its customer base, suggesting the quest to bring a slice of Tokyo to downtown Ho Chi Minh City may well have succeeded. “Our first target is Japanese living or visiting here. So we never change the taste to suit Vietnamese, even though they are our second market,” explains Thao Phuong, Ebisu’s manager.
The distinctive urban Tokyo decor, its dark sliding panels, maze of walls and walkways, and high backed bench seats hint at mystery: budding romance or discreet business negotiations. There are screens sectioning off dining areas throughout the premises – to the point it is unlikely you can see more than three other groups from your own seat.
And a counter for people eating on their own, as salarymen often do in Tokyo after a long day’s work in an office tower. There are private rooms upstairs, and rooms where diners remove their shoes before being seated, in traditional Japanese form. Downstairs, the screens camouflage the true size of the destination, but they’re also flexible to allow groups to dine or to create a more intimate environment for couples.
“Our bosses wanted to bring the taste from Tokyo to Ho Chi Minh City. We keep all the flavors,” explains Thao. “Some restaurants want to change ingredients and so they lose the original Japanese taste.” But not at this restaurant. “We want customers to feel like they are staying in Tokyo.”
To achieve that goal, the owners flew in a group of Japanese with restaurant experience prior to opening. Local wait staff were taught basic Japanese phrases to be able to communicate with Japanese customers. The chefs received the most intensive orientation training of all, to ensure not just the flavor of the food was as close as possible to that of Tokyo, but the presentation too. Focus on presentation – of people, buildings and products – is at the core of Japanese culture.
“The Japanese are very strict. But Vietnamese have a very casual approach, so it was hard to establish [benchmarks] at the start,” recalls Thao. “Japanese customers expect good service and best value. Price is not so important, but food and service is. It’s about value, not price. Ebisu is not cheap, but it is not expensive. Our main point is to present good food and the best service.”
The commitment to authenticity of Ebisu has created a menu that may at first seem daunting to non-Japanese. That’s not something Ebisu needs to apologize for, but for some foreigners with little experience in Japanese cuisine it certainly creates good reason to explore.
Early in the menu, for example, choices include the slightly alarming likes of vinegared chicken gizzard, stewed beef gristle, chicken hearts, pork tongue, leading up to the more disturbing Turtle Hot Pot, an Ebisu special using Chinese soft-shelled turtle, clearly a delicacy for those in the know at 1.4 million a person, for a minimum of three or four people.
If such delicacies are outside your comfort zone, do not be alarmed, there is plenty for everyone here. Besides its specialty of fresh udon noodles made on-site, Ebisu is renowned for its yakitori, kushiyaki and kushiage range – all foods served on skewers. Yakitori is grilled chicken, kushiyaki other grilled food and meats (pork and beef) and kushiage deep-fried.
We chose a selection to sample and each was delicious. The pork belly (buta bara) at VND38,000 was sublimely juicy, its tender meat peppered for a little extra zing and with a lingering flavor of soy and smoke. The chicken and onion (negima) yakitori at VND35,000 was equally moorish, small pieces of tender chicken with crispy skin skewered alternating with chunks of onion. And the cheese (chizu) kushiage at VND48,000 melted in the mouth as you crunched on the lightly crumbed exterior.
In keeping with true Tokyo style, none of the skewers were blackened, and the deep fried one was cooked so fast it did not have time to absorb excessive amounts of oil leaving a clean mouth feel afterwards.
Another Ebisu signature dish is its tofu salad with sesame dressing (konsaito tofuno goma salada) at VND98,000, possibly one of the best salad dishes you can find in town from any cuisine. Despite the description, it is sliced lotus root and crispy fried sweet potato which give this dish its addictive flavor, mixed with tofu chunks, baby tomatoes, lettuce and slim rings of red onion. After the waiter brought the dish to the tabled he poured a delicious creamy sesame dressing all over. This meant that the dressing had no time to soak into the food and make the crispy ingredients soggy – and it added a touch of theatre. Food for the gods!
My companion, a Vietnamese who started the evening a little perturbed by the style of meat on the menu, had heard of Ebisu’s reputation for udon noodles, so was keen to try one. She chose the shrimp udon with grated radish (ebi oroshi udon) at VND120,000 and was very satisfied. The noodles tasted fresh and felt soft on the tongue, the broth was not too salty as is all too often the case in Japanese restaurants outside Japan, and she declared the dish a great choice.
We also ordered the grilled chicken bowl (yakitori don) from the Special Chicken & Egg Rice Bowl section of the menu at VND160,000, a feast in itself. This comprised of various cuts of chicken – meatballs, gizzard, hearts and sliced breast meat – served with an egg, sliced spring onion and shredded seaweed over rice. It was aromatic, savory and very filling.
The peril of restaurant reviewing is you tend to order too much to get a good feel for the styles of food on offer. In this case, the udon dish or the chicken on rice dish would have been sufficient for one, which makes dining at Ebisu exceptional value when one balances the price with the quality of food – a point many travelers and locals alike have made on Tripadvisor where no one has ranked it as “average” or below.
This is real Japanese food, for diners who know what they want, made by chefs who refuse to compromise and served in a setting evoking fond memories of Tokyo.
Photos by Ngoc Tran