Fire Power

Quince Saigon serves up simple, smoky goodness

The dictionary lists at least ten definitions for the word “simple”. Some carry a negative connotation (think: stupid, unsophisticated, or basic) whereas others are more positive (humble, unpretentious, the opposite of what kids mean when they say “extra”). Quince Saigon (37bis Ky Con, D1) embraces everything good about being “simple”.

Located on the southern end of Ky Con, towards the river, you’ll likely miss it the first time you drive by, marked only by a small, backlit sign amidst darkened businesses (Quince only serves dinner, starting at 5:30pm, closed on Sundays). Quince Saigon builds on the popularity of its sister, Quince Eatery & Bar in Bangkok (closed as of December 1 but soon to re-open at another location), awarded a Michelin Plate in the augural Michelin guide for the Thai capital recognizing restaurants that ‘simply serve good food’. But popularity can be both a blessing and a curse. Whereas Executive Chef Julien Perraudin told us his Bangkok menu was pretty much set (“people complain when their favorites disappear from the menu”), he enjoys free rein in Saigon, tinkering with the menu “every day”. While the one-page menu, simply printed on heavy card stock, leans towards Mediterranean flavors, Chef Perraudin’s offerings often include cuisines he finds interesting, with a few starters utilizing Asian ingredients like ponzu and ssamjang or a recent brunch featuring Israeli and Turkish favorites.

Iberico Pork Secreto – Not so mashed potato

What ties everything together, however, is fire. Everything that comes out of the gleaming open kitchen (other than the bread) is either prepped, cooked or finished over a wood fire, in the pair of wood-fired ovens or otherwise infused with smoke—in essence turning fire into an ingredient. While people have been cooking over fires for millennia, harnessing its high heat to sear in flavors, add richer caramelization and getting that “slow food” charm seasoned with the resultant speckled char, it’s still an incredibly difficult medium to control. Just watch any “campfire” Top Chef episode and you’ll see otherwise extremely competent chefs reduced to bumbling amateurs. At Quince, however, fire is friend, not foe. A cast iron pan of heavenly “Not so mashed potatoes” (VND150,000) with smoked truffle butter is finished in the wood-fired ovens while grill grates operated on a pulley system over an open fire for just the right amount of heat cook up sizzling Grass-fed Australian flat iron steak (VND610,000) or char the cabbage that serves as a crunchy bed for the Iberico pork secreto (VND550,000). Incredibly juicy, Iberico pork is curiously banned in Thailand, but welcome in Vietnam. Conversely, Vietnam’s poultry doesn’t make the cut with only one duck and one imported chicken dish on the menu. “Vietnam has either ‘mountain chicken’ which is made for boiling or supermarket chicken which has no flavor,” sighs Chef Perraudin. It’s just another example of how ingredient- driven Quince’s menu is. If the quality isn’t there, don’t expect to find it on the already highly curated menu.

Flat iron steak

Flat iron steak

Fire also signifies warmth, and everything about Quince encourages culinary communion, from the long narrow space with tables set closely together for an almost communal dining  feel to the sharing-friendly plating of the dishes. Our steak came pre- sliced precluding the need for that awkward mid-steak swap and the Chicken liver parfait (VND160,000) came with slices of toasted sourdough for dipping. Once the bread was gone, we had no qualms about eating the rest of the velvety smooth pate on its own, like a guilty kid does peanut butter, savoring its pops of tart sweetness from kumquat jelly and bits of crunch from nut brittle. Sometimes, though, simple can mean “basic”, and that’s probably how I’d describe the Hay smoked kingfish ceviche (VND330,000). While the smoked kingfish was firm and flavorful, accompanied by naturally sweet dollops of fennel puree and slices of burnt orange, the blood orange jus needed a touch more bitterness or punchy acidity to make the dish pop.

Hay smoked kingfish ceviche

Hay smoked kingfish ceviche

While a one-page menu allows the kitchen to churn out dishes quickly and precisely (we saw at least a dozen identically-plated BBQ octopus starters leave the kitchen in the two hours we were there), achieving that level of simplicity is deceptively complex. The open kitchen that runs the entire length of the restaurant reveals why Quince is known for serving up consistently good food—dishes seamlessly passing hands for cooking, garnish and plating; tongs, spatulas and tweezers added ingredients from a fanatically organized array of mise en place, all over immaculately clean surfaces. In an open kitchen, there’s nowhere to hide, and Quince’s high-octane staff seemed to revel in being part of the show. Grab a seat by the counter for an impressive, close-up look at a mostly young, all-Vietnamese staff working in concert, taking obvious pride in a job well done, including efficient communication, easy smiles and finishing touches added with a “Salt Bae” flair.

Chicken liver parfait

Chicken liver parfait

Quince’s popularity, both in Bangkok and Saigon, seems to indicate they’ve uncovered the secret to great food— making sure every single component on the plate is well-thought-out, well- executed and well-plated, every single time. Who knew it was that simple?

Images provided by Quince 

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