A Vietnamese woman and a Kiwi bloke walk into a trendy fashion boutique in Saigon.
Nearly two hours later they emerge back into the night satiated with delicious French food, but no new stitches – not this visit, anyway.
Such is the unique concept of The Mach House (75 Pasteur, D1), a warm, modern French cafe hidden away above a delightful fashion store fronting the street. But the lack of street frontage has not stopped this new entrant on Ho Chi Minh City’s restaurant circuit from gaining fans. The week after our visit, guests included Thanh Hoa, the first winner of Vietnam MasterChef.
The Mach House offers predominantly French cuisine – with some Vietnamese influence and dishes as well – and an impressive, by Vietnam standards, French anchored wine list. Owners Jean Luc Cabirol and Caroline Mach and French chef of 15 years Alexandre, ensure the French influence is authentic and memorable in one. By day the restaurant serves espresso coffee, cakes and mouthwatering French desserts and pastries, for lunch and dinner meals including charcuterie with fresh baked breads.The menu changes regularly, in part due to the owner’s belief that food should be served fresh and natural. While basic staples may be constant, each visit you can expect something new.
Despite the restaurant’s ‘hidden away’ nature, it’s easy to find. Look for the bold white boutique on Pasteur Street, across the road from the Rex Hotel’s side entrance a few meters down from Starbucks. The signage is bold, above the shop entrance and below a huge glass window where you’ll likely spot diners enjoying the view over the busy street from comfortable armchairs. It was one of these window seats we chose for our visit, eschewing the more conventional table – traffic watching, if not people watching, is, after all, one of the addictive pleasures one never seems to tire of when in Saigon.
Somehow, sharing our food over a coffee table gave the experience a homely feel, which the chef matched with a decidedly home-cooked style. Ignore the crush of motorcycles below for a moment, and you could have been in the back streets of old Paris.
The lunch and dinner menu is not extensive – but it doesn’t need to be, because all the food groups are covered. There are soups – a chilled Gazpacho with diced vegetables, croutons and grated parmesan at VND80,000, the most eye-catching – or a hot lentil soup with mushroom flan. Cold starters including marinated boar pate, raw Mahi Mahi fish, three salads (a traditional farmer’s salad with bacon, ham cured ham, potato and poached egg definitely on the short list for our next visit), three quiches and a cheese tart.
Platters of cold cuts, cheeses or a mixture of both were also tempting, but given my dining companion’s love of fish, we opted to share the Trio of cold fish platter for a starter (VND230,000), which turned out to be a meal in itself. If you prefer food slanted more to Vietnamese than French, the menu offers three “Signature Vietnamese” courses – Chicken curry (VND145,000), Duck in broth (VND160,000) and Beef ragout (VND150,000).
Turn to the signature main courses page of the menu and the biggest surprise is the price. The Mach House is a stylish venue with a modern designer apartment feel to it: polished concrete floors, walls a crisp white and a mixture of easy chairs and sofas – or more formal wood dining tables for those who prefer. So if you’re on a budget, you will feel you are getting a lot of value for your money here when you discover the most expensive main course is VND220,000 (for the classic French dish, Duck confit).
The trio of fish turned out to be three generous servings of three distinctly different delicacies and we tortured ourselves for a good 30 minutes trying to pick our favorite: there was a ceviche style tartare, fish pate and marinated salmon. It arrived with piping hot, fresh white bread rolls, fluffy inside and clearly only hours old. The tartare was divine, close in style to a Polynesian-style ceviche: raw fish cubes marinated instead of cooked, mixed with a delightful thick creamy sauce, slightly sweet, slightly citrusy all in one. Seriously addictive! The salmon was a very generous portion, with a distinctive wood smoke flavor, soft and fresh and served with lemon wedges.
The fish pate was sinfully sweet and indulgent, a generous thick slice served in a pool of sweet sauce with diced peppers. The pate was white and creamy and came with chunks of soft carrot embedded which added to the smoothness and gave the dish a more complex flavor as well as a curious look.
In the end we called a draw on the best of the three – the pate and the tartare were both excellent and it seemed unfair to relegate the salmon to third spot. So by mains time we were already enjoying our meal. Could it get any better? Yes!
For mains, my companion chose the Salmon fish with homemade pasta sauce (VND145,000) and I opted for the Mach honey duck breast with sweet spices.
Duck is a notoriously easy dish to get wrong, even in some of the better restaurants I’ve dined in around Asia. So it has become a bellwether for me in determining the skills of a French chef. All too often I’ve been served tough, chewy, undercooked duck, which is, well, not a meat best served raw. On other occasions it’s been overly fatty, leaving an almost glutinous, furry mouth feel that no amount of red wine seems capable of expunging. Alexandre excelled. The duck breast was served with perfect tenderness, not the slightest bit chewy, and medium (as duck should be served, although I accept that’s a subjective opinion) – not too raw, and not overcooked to reduce the distinctive duck meat flavor. The spices gave it a unique slightly sweet flavor – these are European spices, not the hot Asian style of spice. It was served in portions with cubed new potatoes tossed in herbs and a generous helping of salad. It was one of the best duck dishes I’ve eaten in Saigon.
My partner’s salmon was equally rewarding, the serving larger than she could handle due to the large portion of fettuccine pasta in cream sauce. A large fillet baked to perfection, golden brown on the outside and soft and pink inside. Salmon, in contrast to duck, is possibly the most difficult meat to ruin in a kitchen – let’s face it, undercooked it remains entirely edible, provided it’s fresh. But here it was cooked to the center yet still moist, soft and full of flavor. The cream sauce in which it rested was decidedly French; thick with butter but delightfully moorish and decadent, balancing salty fish flavor with sweetness and adding to the smoothness on the palate.
Despite feeling well nourished and satisfied, we knew we couldn’t leave a French restaurant without sampling desserts. So
we accepted the waitress’ recommendation and chose the Crème brulee (VND80,000) and Fine apple tart (VND90,000). The tart was delightfully Parisian yet served with a smile-inducing zigzag of berry coulis with twin slices of star fruit at its head, a cute Vietnamese touch. The apple was thinly sliced over the pastry and again cooked to perfection: moist – not dried out – and flavorsome and as fresh as one could expect.
But the Crème brulee was the pièce de résistance: served in a deep ceramic bowl, with a slice of star fruit and a fresh raspberry on top, the sugar surface slightly charred, it looked as delicious as it tasted. Crack the brittle surface and we were rewarded with soft, sweet, rich custard beneath.
As a hybrid venue, The Mach House mixes fashion and fine food at affordable prices given the modern decor, central downtown location and impeccably prepared food.