At Loveat in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, Mediterranean food meets Italian flair.
The best thing about the breadth of Italian cuisine is that no matter how many restaurants open, they can all maintain a point of difference. Loveat, (29 Hai Trieu, D1), located directly opposite the main entrance to Bitexco Tower, positions itself as “Mediterranean with an Italian twist.” But there’s no hiding a distinctly Italian flair to the menu, perhaps due to the Turinese origins of the son-and-father team who have created the venue: Andrea and Marco Col.
While Loveat stands opposite the city’s most remarkable piece of modern architecture, the restaurant itself stands out as the most modern and eye-catching construction in a line of decrepit suburban shophouses, which makes it easy to find. The interior is creative and unique with an eclectic collection of custom-made wall art – check out the cooking utensils mounted in a frame on the third floor – and vintage-style light bulbs in all shapes and sizes, a talking piece in themselves. There are no white or checkered tablecloths here and nor should there be: this is a modern, brasserie-style venue, cool and hip, not somewhere to eat traditional Italian fare served in a 100-year-old villa.
On the upper level you’ll discover what is soon to become its most unique point of difference: an open deck stretching out over the street, affording a surprisingly intriguing bird’s eye view over the Bitexco Tower, Times Square and their built-in light shows, and the busy road below. Wrapped entirely in glass, it may not be for those who suffer from acrophobia – the effect is a little like stepping out onto those glass floors where you can see hundreds of meters below. But from this month the deck will be a cocktail bar with light finger food served, all enjoyed to a background of live music. A new altitudinal venue, albeit just four stories up, sure to attract the city’s ‘in crowd.’
From the moment we arrived and were seated until the time we farewelled Andrea who personally went off to locate our motorcycle, the service experience was flawless. Attentive staff always seemed to be on hand with whatever we needed, observing from a distance, never intruding and always easy to attract the attention of.
Oi invited Andrea to recommend our dishes and we were subsequently swamped with an array of almost entirely seafood creations, which we spent more than three hours lingering over, departing impossibly but satisfyingly full. Loveat’s menu is extensive – and now into its second generation since opening, enhanced after early customer feedback, and with some pricing modifications. It starts with hot and cold bar snacks, salads and a range of lunch pastas. We skipped that page and moved on to the appetizers, from which Andrea selected Costa del Sol grilled octopus (VND230,000), grilled spicy octopus served on black beans with spring onions, and Provence zucchini flan (VND150,000) served with béchamel sauce. The octopus was chewy without being rubbery, smoky yet not too salty, and full of flavor. The black beans were soft without being mushy and a uniquely curious accompaniment that matched extremely well. The serving size was very generous for an appetizer and we’d certainly order that dish again.
The Zucchini flan was a revelation: possibly the most unique vegetarian dish I can recall, and enormously challenging to describe in words. Imagine a soft sponge cake without the sweetness, served with a slightly salty cheese sauce rather than cream. And, of course, with the taste of zucchini. Absolutely moorish; so much so you get a sense you should be feeling guilty, because surely something this smooth and delicious should be bad for you.
From here we progressed to Moules & frites, (VND175,000 to VND330,000 depending on the size and origin), mussels served Belgian style, in a pan with bruschetta bread and french fries. Loveat offers a selection of seasonings including white wine with cream, marinara and impepata (with black pepper). But we chose the martini and saffron for the combination or flavor and color, and were far from disappointed.
Loveat serves New Zealand imported mussels or local ones and despite one of this reviewer’s ancestry, we took the recommendation to try the local shellfish. They proved smaller, for sure, but fresh and flavorsome, tender and fleshy. If we had to find fault with this dish, perhaps the fries could have been a little crispier, but they weren’t the main attraction of the dish in any case.
Next on the table was the Atene seafood carbonara (VND240,000), linguine pasta in a carbonara sauce tossed with fresh fish and seafood. This is the perfect Italian-style dish for pasta and seafood lovers with scallops, octopus, prawns and salmon aplenty in a pasta which was prepared perfectly al dente, and a smooth creamy sauce. The dish was moist without excessive cream, peppery rather than salty, and so the entire dish felt light and summery and fresh, not heavy or overly filling.
Andrea was eager for us to try another house specialty – the King royal grilled fish plate (VND370,000) – a long narrow plate with pieces of lightly grilled grouper, tuna, squid and prawns. This was a deceptively big dish and we opted to share each fillet one at a time to compare notes on the flavors and freshness. Again, we were not disappointed. All the fish were grilled to perfection, without charring or dehydration. The squid was the standout, my Vietnamese co-reviewer observing they reminded her of “one sun squid” a local dish using squid dried in the sun for a single day so as to be not too dry and not too moist and tender in the mouth. The prawns were very fleshy and tender.
Between each morsel of fish were whole grilled baby tomatoes: eaten whole, these were like little explosions of sweetness and juice, almost worthy of a place on the menu in their own right.
Throughout the appetizers and main courses, we enjoyed a bottle of Chilean Root 1 Sauvignon Blanc from the Casablanca Valley, a superb example of just why New Zealand, as the global master of the varietal, should be increasingly worried about competition from South America. Fruity, zesty, citrusy and very fresh on the palate, a rewarding indulgence at VND750,000.
After such an enormous delicious meal, dessert seemed to be an excess which would lead to a doubling of gym time the next morning. But we knew we owed it to our readers to complete the assignment, so diets were shelved in favor of further indulgence. Again we took the advice of our host and were served two of the house specialties to share: The Loveat tiramisu and the Strawberry panna cotta (both VND140,000).
The panna cotta was served in a bowl, with the strawberry a thick sauce served alongside in a little jug; you pour the sauce over the little white pudding for the combined effect. We found the panna cotta a little firmer than we are accustomed to, but the sauce was rich and fruity – good enough to be bottled and sold.
The tiramisu was simply delicious. Cutely served in a little glass storage jar, it was soft, full of flavor and moist – and with a heavenly dose of alcohol to blend with the cream, coffee, sponge and the dusting of tart cocoa powder. It was a truly delicious way to end a fulfilling meal.