Saigon’s newest restaurant serving creative Italian cuisine and big dreams
It’s often true that the most memorable dining venues aren’t the ones that are easiest to spot. You won’t walk past Small Vacancy – Lounge & Dining —it’s hidden away in the corner of the alley at 178/4B Pasteur, D1—but this striking venue with its intimate lighting, discrete seating, bold teak color scheme and melding of traditional British tea room with modern American industrial design is one that is likely to become a word-of-mouth sensation.
Everything you need to know about the venue’s physical and conceptual positioning comes from its tagline, “small vacancy to dream big.” You can interpret the word “vacancy” here to refer to that zen-like emptiness that serves as a reservoir for pure creative potential, and conclude that this dining spot is conceived of as an opening where that potential can take root. To co-founder Truong Thoai Yen (who opened the restaurant with two likeminded business partners, Hieu and Linh), taking the plunge into the F&B industry represented a significant departure from her comfort zone in the pursuit of a new dream; the defining emotion of that process became Small Vacancy’s raison d’être, and the interior was thus styled as far as possible to stimulate and inspire dreamers, with each corner of the venue’s dining areas given their own distinctive look and atmosphere. What emerged on opening day just over a month ago was a restaurant that aims to provide a sense of privacy and relaxation, while being located at the end of an alleyway that you may have sailed past a thousand times without noticing it, away from the crowds and yet still remaining at the very center of Saigon.
We begin our meal with a very good reason to visit Small Vacancy on its own—a stiff drink. The restaurant’s nine signature cocktails (VND129,000) are the creation of mixologist Miss Nhu, the daughter of a winemaker whose specialty mixer syrups derived from fresh Dalat fruits lend a startling energy to each glass. Our Vacancy Margarita bears exotic whiffs of cinnamon and star anise over a zesty citrus base, while the Little Soft cushions astringent pockets of lime with its creamy vanilla and egg white froth. They come served with a twist of caramel toffee in unusually artistic glasses that are locally made, and in the case of the fruity hazelnut oska and the kumquat mojito, the liquor comes in a small bottle so that the drinker can adjust the strength of the mix at the table. Small Vacancy’s ground floor bar area welcomes those who arrive solely for the drinks (Happy Hour is 3pm–7pm, buy one get one free), so this venue is equally as good for an after-work tipple as it is for a meal.
Don’t skip dinner, though Small Vacancy offers a tight menu of Italianbased cuisine with occasional fusion crossovers that has been specially created by Chef Nghe (formerly of Basilico), each dish lovingly prepared and beautifully plated, as well as forgivingly priced. Appetizers are salad-focussed; we enjoyed a light octopus carpaccio (VND129,000) featuring a salad with cherry tomatoes, orange, arugula (sometimes swapped for another green depending on availability) and red & black caviar that blended particularly well with the house garlic dressing. Other easy starters can be selected from the tapas menu, which consciously involves more Asian elements: our Mussels Three Ways (VND69,000) is the best-seller with its platter of three baked mussels caked in bread crumbs, mozzarella cheese and arrabiata sauce respectively. The flavors were warm and gently muted. Also of note is the prawn cocktail (VND59,000) served fresh with romaine lettuce and cocktail sauce.
Our mains were flawless, five-star presentation meal items that were wellbalanced and perfectly comfortable on the palate. It’s a notably tight list of mains items with just six options to choose from; according to Thoai Yen, this limitation is a conscious choice to focus on the best potential dishes available and avoid a distractingly baroque menu. The drinks list is far more extensive by comparison; we opted for a safe Frontera Chilean chardonnay that comes at VND95,000 by the glass. We tried a delicious grilled New Zealand lamb rack (VND279,000) with a traditional red wine mint sauce and creamy potato puree. Our beef tenderloin (VND319,000) was pleasantly mild; the purple sweet potato puree is the local element that gives the dish a gently exotic touch. Small Vacancy’s desserts menu is similarly concise; we chose a panna cotta passionfruit (VND59,000) and a tiramisu (VND79,000). Both of these, like every dish at this restaurant, were conspicuously enhanced by flavors and sauces (particularly the panna cotta) and otherwise well-prepared and pleasurable.
Small Vacancy is itself a pleasure; the location is intimate and safe, the décor visually stimulating, and the overall vibe of the venue does lend itself to conversation, contemplation, and perhaps the spark of big dreams to reach for in future. Spread the word.
Images Provided by Small Vacancy