Tapas take on a sexy new look and flavor with the arrival of Tomatito and its colorful award-winning chef, Willy Trullas Moreno

The “Sexy Tapas Bar” Tomatito Saigon (First Floor, 171 Calmette, D1) is about to open in the heart of the new burgeoning bar/restaurant neighborhood south of Ben Thanh Market. As tradesmen hang drywall and run electrical and plumbing, I catch up with Chef Willy Trullas Moreno, the entrepreneur and celebrity chef behind the international Tomatito brand. I’m greeted with a warm smile and a friendly handshake. Today he’s wearing one of his signature embroidered chef’s jackets, this one a crisp white with kittens on the shoulders. On the heels of two successful launches in Shanghai and Manila, Chef Willy is now bringing his sexy tapas to Saigon.

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Tomatito, Spanish for “little tomato”, opened in June 2014 in Shanghai. The concept is a contemporary Spanish tapas bar with a sexy twist. Chef Willy created small bites that are “funky, playful, have a sense of humor and a personality,” and an equally-inspired cocktail menu that includes a selection of Spanish wines, signature cocktails and house-made sangrias. “All the sexy Spanish elements”, he says with obvious relish. The food and drinks are complemented by retro-Spanish decor and music from the 1960s and 70s, courtesy of Willy’s brother, an interior designer working in Barcelona. Add it all together and, in Chef Willy’s animated words, “It’s a great place for groups, friends and business peers. After work you go have some sangria and some sexy tapas—what a lovely evening!”.

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Willy is a first-generation professional chef, but he still draws inspiration from the traditional food prepared by his mother and grandmother. After completing culinary school in Barcelona, he landed in Shanghai and spent a year traveling around China with a wine company and creating dishes to pair with their wines. His talents were quickly recognized, and he was recruited to breathe new life into a struggling restaurant back in Shanghai. A decade later, Willy is the creative force behind three of Shanghai’s most acclaimed restaurants—Elefante, El Willy, and El Ocho—and an award-winning chef who’s known for his colorful personality and creative spin on traditional Spanish food. But for Tomatito, his latest venture and the first to expand beyond Shanghai, he is focusing on the Spanish favorite, tapas. Although he does see parallels to the family-style dining common in Asian cultures, it’s the “creative playground” of contemporary tapas that really makes his eyes light up.

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The essence of tapas is sharing. While tapas are commonly known as a version of appetizers, they have evolved into something new in contemporary Spanish cuisine: a whole new style of dining. Gone are the days of everyone ordering separate entrees, placing your bets and stealing a bite from your neighbor when they’re not looking. Instead, you order several small tapas plates for a group and eat a bit of everything while mingling and chatting. This style of dining also opens up a creative playground for chefs, inviting bold and risky new ideas with personality and a sense of humor—what Chef Willy likes to call “sexy tapas.”

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The first time Willy visited Ho Chi Minh City was six years ago, and at the time he says he couldn’t imagine a Spanish restaurant here. With all the changes brought in recent years, however, he feels like now is the perfect time. While acknowledging “you need that expat population, especially at the beginning, to make the place shake,” he says, “it’d be a big dream to introduce Vietnamese people to the Spanish cuisine. I would be super excited.”Tomatito Saigon will have the same type of format, but with a menu that’s tailor-made to the local market. The chef says it “could lead to dishes with a little Vietnamese touch.”

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Tomatito Saigon will open during a time of change and revitalization. With new skyscrapers and megamalls being built in anticipation of the metro system, massive developments across the river and new transit-oriented development projects all over the city, Ho Chi Minh City is joining the ranks of Asian cities redefining what it means to be a global cultural hub. Tomatito embodies that creativity and dynamism and is sure to become a mainstay of the happy-hour and late-night set. As our conversation comes to a close, I ask Chef Willy: Isn’t Saigon sexy already? He smiles, glances towards the kitchen and says, “It’s gonna be sexier.”

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Text by Grant Hawkins

Portrait by Ngoc Tran

Food Images Provided by Tomatito