Café-Restaurant HCMC merges Continental Kitchen with comfy living room chic
Renovated from two heritage shophouses on Calmette (171 Calmette, 1st floor), just south of the Ben Thanh traffic circle, Café-Restaurant revives the art of the Grand Café, a stylish place to unwind with a cup of coffee, with the well-executed menu of a European brasserie.
The newly opened restaurant is a mix of modern and classic, both in décor and menu offerings. Century-old tiles meld into cool painted concrete floors in a large industrial-chic space accented by vintage mood lighting and studded seating, juxtaposed against a gleaming open kitchen all set to a backdrop of hip lounge music. The décor is a tasteful homage to Saigon itself ― a mosaic of Ben Thanh Market made from salvaged tiles adorns one wall while contemporary Asian art breaks up the clean white space, including a mural of Dr. Calmette himself, whose quirky experiments inspire a range of playful cocktails like the Poisonous Bloody Mary (VND220,000), a dangerous concoction of tomato juice, Platinum beer, Saigon Charlie’s Hot Sauce and a sliver of bacon. Patrons can take a seat around the open kitchen or the softly lit bar area, as well as at tables and sofas throughout the spacious open-plan restaurant.
Café-Restaurant’s menu is squarely Continental Kitchen classics like steaks, chops and pasta with touches of Dutch and other Northern European flavors, courtesy of Dutch co-owners Martjin Vermaire and Sander Smits who bring to their first collaborative venture years of experience in the high-end hospitality industry. “The concept is two-fold,” explains Sander. “It’s a brasserie with very tasty food by passionate chefs who make beautiful dishes and a grand café, a very reliable place that’s open from 7am to midnight, where you can go for a coffee and a newspaper near the center of town. We’re trying to combine these two concepts to make a modern, classic space that should feel timeless.”
Our meal begins with Steve’s Octopus Salad (VND160,000), a creation of Executive Chef Steven Long who contributes his 12 years of culinary experience peppered with influence from time spent cooking in the Mediterranean. The star of this eclectic dish is a cold terrine of octopus, simply flavored with its own broth, and a little vinegar, salt and pepper. The mild flavor of the seafood is accented by advocaat, a traditional Dutch, almost custard-like concoction of egg yolks, brandy and vodka. The sweetness is provided by a creamy potato salad and sugary sundried tomatoes with the acid coming from a simple green salad in balsamic for a creatively balanced dish. Our second starter was Steve’s Sous-Vide Egg (VND80,000), a deliciously unpretentious combination of rather pretentious ingredients: an egg cooked sous-vide for 13 minutes so the yolk oozes out over a bed of spinach and baby asparagus with a side of Hollandaise sauce and local lumpfish caviar for a burst of salty decadence.
The Meatworks Butchery (VND300,000) allowed the ingredients to sing: Australian Oyster Blade steak with a beautiful sear simply adorned with toasted garlic chips, a stack of grilled vegetables and a spicy grilled corn salsa, the very incarnation of summer on a plate. The Whole Corn-fed Roasted Young Chicken (VND360,000) recalled a perfect Sunday afternoon roast in miniature ― a succulent bird in a sweet tomato-based BBQ sauce over a bed of roasted autumn vegetables. The sides were only VND60,000, but we limited ourselves to the Pesto Pasta, a warm, comforting bowl of basily goodness.
Service was some of the best we’ve encountered anywhere in Saigon, waitstaff discreetly asking whether they could clear the last course and if we wanted dessert served immediately or after a short wait. We opted to allow our food to settle before digging into a rapturous Marou Mousse (VND150,000), impossibly smooth yet firm on a chocolate and almond cookie base with a dollop of whipped cream and tart berries to cut through the richness, a dessert you’ll want to leave room for at all costs.
The Coconut Pannacotta (VND80,000) was expectedly light but paired with savory-sour Balsamic cherry tomatoes for a pleasant twist on the original.
“We wanted to create a living room mix where everyone can feel at home,” says Sander of the space that’s at once comfortable yet chic. “Café-Restaurant is a place where you can go whether it’s 7am or midnight and find good quality food at reasonable prices. Our Vietnamese drip coffee is VND30,000, just VND5,000 more than downstairs on the street. We love good food and good drinks, so I guess this is in our genes!”
Café-Restaurant HCMC is open every day during Tet.
Images By Ngoc Tran