A long-time favorite, Xu is still going strong with its ambitious, mostly assured nouvelle Vietnamese cooking
Xu Restaurant Lounge (71-75 Hai Ba Trung, D1) is in the heart of the upscale area of District 1. Xu is trendy and a place filled to the brim with the hopes that something story-worthy will happen that night—similar to how one might have expectations when visiting Las Vegas—and Xu definitely has that “anything might happen” vibe. A distinct change of pace to a more exciting fine dining experience in Saigon, where the more orthodox French dining influence takes up a fair share of real estate in the cityscape.
The 2010 Restaurateur of the Year and Regional Chef of the Year, Bien Nguyen, cut his teeth working at restaurants in Australia at the tender age of 15.
He arrived in Saigon in 2004 with the intention of bringing a modern flair to Vietnamese cuisine, shortly opening Xu in 2005. It quickly became one of the must-go, must-dress-up, must-be-seen hot spots for the freshly minted locals and the out-of-towners who came to mix a little entertainment with business with the aforementioned.
Chili Prawn – Cold Pot
You are first welcomed at the door by a statuesque female hostess and find the ground floor lounge. It is a beautiful long sleek space. The upstairs is the dining area and is similar in look and feel, but much more intimate even though it is more spacious. The immense floor gives each table a sense of privacy as if the entire restaurant is only for them—perfect for a date night or a power dinner meeting or just enjoying with your close confidants.
But did we mention that you also get to enjoy Vietnamese cuisine?
We were served the Discovery four-course (VND900,000 food only, VND1.7 million with matching wine) and the five-course (VND1 million food only, VND1.9 million with matching wine) tasting menu. The food here is traditional Vietnamese food with a few tricks up Bien’s sleeves. The beautiful plating and the presentation looks minimalist at first glance, but you have to look a little deeper to see how it is similar to a sculptor’s work, with the ingredients acting like layers of color and texture. Everything from the banh khot to the prawns lettuce wrap remains true to the regions of Vietnam that the dish is suppose to represent.
The smoked bacon wrapped sea bass is flakey and buttery, while the smoked bacon doesn’t overwhelm the flavors and adds the right amount of saltiness to the fish. The Saigon stewed beef is a sentimental comforting feeling of home and mother’s cooking, which always remains universal. You will find hints of variants to tradition just to keep your taste buds on your toes and guessing. The coconut braised pork belly is a perfect example, as it melts in your mouth if you allow it to linger on your tongue.
Coconut Braised Pork Belly
The restaurant also has an extensive diverse wine list from France, Australia, US and South America to cater to all your wine preferences. You can choose to have a wine pairing with the course menu, but we decided to go instead with choosing our own cocktails. The mixologists formulated a unique list of cocktails specific to Xu, modifications of known classics from around the world. For example, the capiruva is a cheeky Vietnamese version to its Brazilian cousin, the caipirinha- adding muddled grapes to the muddled lime and replacing crushed granular sugar with sugarcane juice instead. The mixologist can also make bespoke beverages depending on your preferences. After a few carefully selected set of questions by our server, he offered to make me an off-menu item he calls the Asian Lava—made with Hendrick’s Gin, Thomas Henry Tonic imported from the UK, hibiscus jam, rosemary, lime juice and a garnish of rosebud. It was so good that I wanted to take credit for the creation of the cocktail. (I learned that that’s how bespoke mixology is suppose to work.)
Chocolate Kumquat Truffle
Desserts are literally served bite sized so you can indulge in the different delicables as you wish or so to be shared with your party. They are served in duck soup spoons to give that extra playful moment to bring the night at the restaurant to an end. The sticky rice mochi in coconut milk with finely cubed mangoes served in a shot glass and the matcha pudding certainly stands out.
Che Troi Nuoc
The tasting course dinner may have ended, but it definitely does not mean the story has. As we are walking down the stairs and reenter the bar lounge on the ground floor, I suddenly realize how perfectly fitting the design layout is. I initially thought the lounge was the beginning of the night followed by dinner upstairs, but how could I have been so wrong. It felt as if Bien gave a proverbial wink and smile towards our direction as we ordered another cocktail at the bar. Cheers to continuing the story.
Images by Vy Lam and Xu