Big flavors on small plates at this new tapas restaurant in downtown Saigon

When Tony Fox opened his doors a month ago in the much loved but now defunct Portofino, it was with a specific purpose: bring something new to HCMC. As we sit under warm lighting in a cozy brick layered interior, we can’t help but muse on the current state of the culinary scene in Vietnam. Needless to say, for Tony, in his 14 years of being in the scene, things have evolved—a lot. FORK (15 DONG DU, D1) is a clear response to that— offering small plates (which I’m told is bigger than tapas) was at first, to me, sounded like a marketing gimmick. They aren’t tapas but yet they offer small plates designed to be shared distinctly from Spain. This, of course, all changed once the first plate was delivered. Physically it was bigger, and so was the taste. With a predominately female winedrinking crowd, FORK sits in a rather interesting niche that caters to shareable but diverse menu items. While mostly from Spain, the menu has a specials list that pulls from Tony’s various culinary experiences as owner of Ciao Bella, Saffron, Twenty21One and Bleu.

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Ricotta gnudi

The first plate was Ricotta gnudi (VND100,000). I was struck by the soft rice cake texture, filled with a fluffy light yet rich bodied cheese. What looks like a leaf was in fact a salty—bursting with flavor—garnish. The pool of soft butter and oil swirling languidly around it gave it a richer flavor. Next were Boquerones  (VND50,000), which are toasted bread topped with salty soft anchovy combined with tangy sweet piquillo peppers. Seems like an odd pairing for the non-Spanish inclined but the taste is that perfect mix of salty sweet tangy ending in a crunch from the toasted bread. The olive oil helps to bridge the flavors of the different contrasts, like a conductor of an orchestra. Parmesan rocket Ndjua (VND70,000) was next and I was immediately hit with spicy peppery flavors, reminiscent of a chorizo, but with a soft texture similar to pâté but coarser. While not so spicy at first it hits you later. The parmesan and rocket help to balance it.

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Boquerones

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Parmesan rocket Ndjua

One of Tony’s specials and a dish he claims made him famous in the tapas world is the Korean spiced salmon (VND100,000)—a personal twist on the salmon, bagel, cream cheese— probably one of the most interesting tapas I’ve ever had. The spiciness is kept subtle with the soft texture and creamy taste of the salmon, then bam you’re hit with a wasabi cream cheese that immediately pairs with the salmon followed by the light crispy crunch of the thin wafer below, which nearly buckled under the  weight of the massive amounts of cubed salmon. Delicious, and possibly my favorite of the night.

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Korean spiced salmon

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Sea scallops on miso risotto

Next was an interesting combination of Sea scallops on miso risotto (VND160,000). It was cheesy and rich and reminded me of a mac n’ cheese. Lightly seared scallops added a slight salty sea flavor, which helped to balance the rich cheesiness. Another small plate we ordered was Beef cheeks with cauliflower purée (VND160,000). The braised beef cheeks were so soft and my fork shredded it instantly as the fat easily spread out with the tender meat, while the purée was like a soft whipped mash and the gravy was deep. The Crispy pork belly with mojo verde (VND110,000) was another favorite of the night. As any good pork belly should be, it was very rich, fatty, but the mojo verde helped to offset the richness.

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Beef cheeks with cauliflower purée

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Crispy pork belly with mojo verde

The crispy crunch of the skin was perfect. Probably the richest plate of the day, each bite needs an accompanying bit of mojo verde but irresistible and addictive. Last, but not least, was English blood sausage with melted leeks, chicken liver and marsala sauce (VND160,000). The chicken liver was slightly tense with a gamy flavor and richness that flooded the tastes. The blood sausage was perfect with the gravy, a bit salty but mellow and the texture came through nicely.

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English blood sausage with melted leeks, chicken liver and marsala sauce

The end of the night was capped off by a flourless chocolate cake (VND100,000)—lightly chilled to the density of a fudge but not overly sweet. After the richness of the different dishes the sweetness was in itself a welcome.

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flourless chocolate cake

It’s easy to see Tony’s experience and dedication to the craft. Each plate is carefully presented yet not overly pretentious. The flavors are well calculated, and in some cases surprising in its depth and layers. Each bite is a taste experience but offers enough size to satisfy even the hungriest eaters and still be pretty affordable. No doubt in my mind that FORK is already poised to be a fantastic success in Tony’s portfolio of already envious restaurant brands. I’ll be back for sure and ready to dig my fork in new dishes. 