A new tapas restaurant offering the flare and flavors of Spain in Phu My Hung.

Some nights are unforgettable; they have a permanence about them that can rise to the surface even decades beyond the morning after. For new restaurateur Jeff Noble, that memorable night occurred during his student days while travelling through Andalusia with friends – and it was then that he first fell in love with Spain.

“We’d managed to get lost somewhere around Granada late at night,” he remembers. “We stopped in a village that still had some lights on. It turned out that the son of a local bar owner was getting married a couple of days later, and it was effectively his stag night. As soon as they saw our beat-up old car with British registration, they invited us in. We didn’t pay for a thing the whole evening – they were bringing out little tapas, local specialities, garlic roasted almonds and some of the best sangria I ever remember having, and we probably stayed there until about two o’clock in the morning. By that time we were in no fit state to drive, and so they put us up for the night. I thought really, this informal kind of ‘everybody’s welcome’ culture, and all those little snacky things that are each quite tasty in their own right – I think that’s what I really enjoy about Spain, and in some sense, that’s what we’re trying to create here.”

That anecdote is essentially all you need to know about Viva! Tapas Bar & Grill (R4-28 Hung Gia 4, Tan Phong, D7), Phu My Hung’s newest open-late venue. Best described as something in between a bar and a restaurant, you can treat it as either – sit yourself down at one of the tables for a feast of various tapas specialties, or stand at one of the leaning benches with a few good mates and enjoy some of the cheekier numbers from the wine list (tip – go for the hand-selected good stuff) or classics from the top shelf.

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The venue was kick-started months ago as Chau’s Seafood and Grill after Jeff’s confidence in his original tapas concept wavered at seeing the number of superb existing tapas bars already operating in the city. It was only later on that he started to see he still had a niche to fill.

“When you travel around Spain,” he says, “what you find with tapas is that there are similar dishes, but there are also regional variations. Whenever I’ve visited the tapas bars here, I’ve tried all the standards – you know, the garlic prawns, and all the meatballs – but I’ve seen very little of the regional stuff. In Andalusia, for example, you can see there’s a distinct Moorish influence. So with our menu we decided to include things like Moroccan lamb, Andalusian beef stew, orange and bean salads – food like that. I’ve never seen them on any of the menus anywhere else here in the Spanish-style restaurants. So I thought, let’s give people something with a different taste. I want to give tapas fans here something they’ve never tried before.”

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Prawns in chili

The resulting menu is unusually extensive and features the best of the regional cuisine. Explore at will – you could dine here for a month and have a different ensemble of flavors each night – but do keep an eye out for the Andalusian highlights. The bean & orange salad (VND65,000) is an obvious refreshment item in this hot weather, while the duck rillette on toast (VND65,000) is a salute to the traditional French shredded preserved meat on crostini. The embutidos cold cut platter (VND105,000) is a fine salami and sausage selection of classic meats, while the black pepper beef pinchos (VND95,000) are a fiery shish kebab common to the north of Spain – try the lamb for a more Andalusian touch. Another must-try regional dish is the Andalusia beef stew (VND85,000), steeped in genuine moorish spices sourced from a local importer.

Probably the best-loved item on the menu is one of Jeff’s own creations – the mini-pizza de Berenjena con toncino (VND65,000). A ratatouille sauce on roasted aubergines, this is a hybrid of a couple of regional tapas items that should be a classic of the genre – and with the soft textures of the eggplant, it’s possibly more addictive than pizza itself. Of course, if you want to stick with the classics, the prawns in chilli (VND85,000) and deep-fried squid (VND85,000) will stand out for their freshness, particularly the former with its Spanish twist on a dish otherwise familiar to the Vietnamese palate.

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Mini-pizza de Berenjena con toncino

Spanish Blood
The indisputable accompaniment to a tapas feast is sangria, but don’t feel like a heathen if you’re just enjoying the beer (and if you do, make sure you snack on the deep-fried olives (olivos fritas, VND45,000), a rare treat far classier and tastier than a plate of fries). People often overestimate the prevalence of sangria on the Iberian peninsula – Spaniards, like anyone else, generally take beer in their bars too.

There’s no denying, however, that sangria is the sunshine in the Spanish soul; and yet, as a cocktail of fruit and wine, it may as well have been created for Vietnam – laced with a selection of local tropical fruit, Viva!’s house sangria will see you stumbling home with stars in your eyes. There are two selections, both of which come in half-liter (VND130,000) and full-liter (VND240,000) carafes; the bloodied variety uses red wine, cognac, and orange juice along with the soda water and fruit salad, while the sangria blanca swaps in white wine & apple juice.

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Duck Rillete on toast

Both beverages sing of happy nights spent at the tavernas, many miles away from this place and yet somehow nearer for the emergence of this unusual venue. Dim-lit and washed in cobalt blue, just as a moody Mediterranean restaurant should be, there’s actually a lot of Hispanic sunshine in this place – do keep an eye on it in the months to come, as Jeff’s next plans for the venue include a street-side café for daylight hours where you’ll be able to enjoy café solo by the bodega on lazy afternoons, just as the Spanish do.

Images by Adam Robert Young