Caring about meats is what this grill house is all about

The folks behind newcomers to the Saigon dining scene, Racha Room and Relish & Sons, completed a trifecta with the addition of Stoker Woodfired Grill & Bar (44 Mac Thi Buoi, D1). Located mere steps from Racha Room, Stoker welcomes patrons with a dark wood interior and rich hues that project warmth as you stroll inside. The bar hosts an impressive array of fine spirits including an extensive collection of bourbon, scotch and gin, all of which are employed to create tantalizing cocktails to get your evening off to a rollicking start (Happy Hour is buy-one-get-one on everything, 5pm-7pm, seven days a week).

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Leading the kitchen is chef Julien Thabault. Trained in France, Julien left Paris after five years of study to cut his path through the culinary world working in London, his last stop being the renowned Quo Vadis in London’s Soho neighborhood. “We’re not a steakhouse,” Julien professed with a determined and confident tone. “We’re a grill house; we care about all our meats.” Stoker has plenty of them on offer, including steaks, pork, lamb and even salmon, and they use a custom built room to dry age some of their choicest cuts. Stoker doesn’t stop there with what feels like a bespoke restaurant experience, however. Other than ice cream, they do everything in house, from baking their own breads and pastries to smoking and curing their own meats. “We care about our products and we’re not scared to put up our prices a bit to obtain the best quality,” he admitted. “We want to serve only the best.”

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After giving us a guided tour of the menu, providing suggestions, and asking us about foods we enjoy, Julien assembled our evening’s meal. We started out with some rosemary flatbread (VND55,000) from their wood fired oven; herb-roasted bone marrow with chimichurri sauce, caramelized onions, and sourdough bread (VND210,000); and an organic tomato salad with chorizo sausage and burrata cheese in a balsamic vinaigrette dressing (VND190,000).

The bone marrow is the most compelling menu item and, as it happens, the most popular as well. Despite Stoker being only two months old, the bone marrow starter is popular amongst their clientele who can’t seem to get enough of it, and with good reason. The roasted herb crust is a wonderful balance for the soft, fatty marrow’s rich texture. Combined with a small dollop of caramelized onions on a sourdough toast point makes this a brilliant way to begin a meal. I might prefer the toast points a bit more thin to allow the marrow to stand out more, but it’s a savory dish that insists upon being ordered. The organic tomato salad was stellar and it highlights Stoker’s obsession with using only the best ingredients for their menu. A mix of fried and raw Dalat cherry tomatoes is combined with local raw tomatoes, burrata cheese, and chorizo in balsamic vinaigrette to deliver what I thought was the biggest surprise of the evening. The freshness of this dish can’t be overstated, nor can its delightful mosaic of flavors.

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But Stoker is a grill house, and we were eager to see Julien make good on just how much they care about their meats. We dined on an Aussie filet aged 21 days (220g, VND790,000) and Secreto Iberico (180g, VND420,000), served with mashed potatoes (VND90,000), asparagus with feta cheese (VND150,000), and broccoli with almonds in brown butter (VND70,000). The mashed potatoes were sinfully smooth and buttery and may as well have been served for dessert. The most apt term to describe them is decadent. The broccoli in brown butter was quite appealing, but sautéed asparagus remains my preferred vegetable with grilled meats. The addition of feta cheese provided a tangy change of pace.

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Their flagship filet was a beautiful cut of meat, dry aged in their custom aging room, and served on a wooden block with a bit of salt and your choice of sauce. The dry aging makes a tremendous difference. First, it evaporates moisture from the muscle, which concentrates the beef flavor and taste. Second, the beef’s natural enzymes break down the connective tissue in the muscle, which creates a more tender beef and a silky texture. The Secreto Iberico, or secret cut, is from just behind the shoulder of a Spanish pig fed a diet of semi-wild acorns. Cutting into the tender slab of pork revealed its bright pink interior. Few restaurants are daring enough to cook pork to medium temperatures, but Stoker does so with confidence. One bite is all it takes to confirm their care for their meat is sincere. Dining on pork cooked to a medium temperature reveals flavors one doesn’t have the opportunity to enjoy when the meat is cooked well. It’s something that may give one apprehension, but it rewards the bold handsomely.

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The attentive staff was not about to let us depart without indulging in something from their dessert menu. On the advice of our server, we ordered the chocolate fondant with flaming cherries and vanilla ice cream (VND160,000). Watching rich, molten chocolate flow from the inside of a cake where it can be mixed with cherries and vanilla ice cream is an exquisite way to finish off an exquisite meal. Stoker gets everything right in spades, and their quality demands return visits for those willing to pay a bit extra for the experience they provide. But don’t call it a steakhouse.

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Images by Ngoc Tran