A Scot brings a unique combination of flavors to whet your appetite
In a city with such a vast array of international cuisines aimed at expats and more adventurous local diners, hotel dining options are often overlooked. In the case of Reflections, on the third floor of the Caravelle Hotel, that’s a shame because Executive Chef Darren Watson, three years at Reflections, has mixed local produce and flavors with international styles to create an extensive and unique fine dining offer to satisfy even the pickiest eaters. Chef Darren previously worked at Sydney’s Aria restaurant, a stone’s throw from the Opera House, was the personal chef of billionaire Australian industrialist the late Richard Pratt, and was at Phoenix on Melbourne’s Yarra River as well as at Auckland’s Langham Hotel before heading to Vietnam.
Australasians will know most of those venues; to those from the other hemisphere, rest assured that’s an impressive CV. He tries to use as many locally sourced ingredients as possible in his dishes, which range from Asian fare based on traditional Vietnamese dishes, through to haute cuisine inspired from all corners of the world. The only seafood imported is salmon and almost all the vegetables come from Dalat. Most of the food is prepared in-house by the team of about 120 who staff the Caravelle’s kitchens – down to home baked bread, ice cream and even black pudding. Try these menu options for an example of the internationalism of the fare: Lobster and shellfish mousse tempura on mussel risotto with anis saffron reduction; pressed duck liver and duck confit with Szechuan glazed jelly, pineapple chutney and cashew nuts; and herb breaded crispy frog legs with broccoli and roast garlic puree, celeriac cream and shaved parmesan. And those are just appetizers.
Reflections has little profile when you arrive at the hotel. It’s located on the third floor of the original building, accessed by the lift which most of us know as the way to the famous Saigon Saigon rooftop bar. Oi had the misfortune of arriving in the same lift as three other diners the night we visited, an amazing coincidence given it was probably the restaurant’s quietest night in weeks. We let the other group be seated first, but somehow were forgotten and left lingering in the lobby for what seemed like ages before venturing in and being greeted by the musicians and eventually by someone who seemed embarrassed by our abandonment. But from a confusing start, the service and dining experience matured into a memorable night of gastronomic delight, attentive service and friendly engagement by the entire team.
Reflections is a large restaurant, but its split level design, the solid structural pillars throughout and dark polished wood make it feel much more intimate – even when just a few tables are occupied. Live music – a female singer with accompanying pianist – adds to the romantic feel of the room, but it’s not too dark or subtle for a business dinner or a pretheatre indulgence. Once seated we chose to go straight to the wine list, but an endearing feature of the restaurant is a cocktail trolley for those who want to enjoy the theatre of seeing their favorite mix created in front of them. We felt the Scott Base New Zealand Pinot Noir for VND1.76 million would best complement the broad range of flavors we were ordering. The menu, as previously detailed, is extensive. And mouthwatering. Choosing is not easy and as usual we sought the counsel of the staff – all of whom speak exceptionally good English – before deciding on a mix of the adventurous and the familiar.
My dining partner opted to try Chef Darren’s interpretation of a Caesar salad (VND228,000) with lightly cured smoked salmon (there is an option of salmon or Italian ham) for an appetizer, followed by wok-fried Nha Trang lobster served with XO sauce and served on a bed of sautéed local thien ly flowers and steamed rice – from the Asian Flavours section of the menu (VND598,000). I opted for the seared deep sea scallops on parsnip puree, broad beans, green peas, herb salad and barbeque duck jus (VND398,000) followed by the “Sous vide” butter poached lamb loin with smoked gnocchi, green peas, fava beans, olives, lardons, pea puree and roasted red capsicum lamb jus (VND558,000). Neither of us was disappointed. The scallops were large and meaty, yet juicy and tasty – none of those American style minnows on the Reflections’ plate! But the accompaniment proved like a series of mini flavor crackers: fennel, crunchy beans, a lashing of creamy sauce and a piquant red jus. The salad delivered beyond expectation – it might not be the most adventurous dish to order from such a menu, but the salmon was smooth and smoky and the lettuce particularly crisp. The mains were works of art, especially the Nha Trang lobster, spread out in perfect formation, the flesh exposed to eat with ease and surrounded by thien ly flowers (a personal favorite among foods unique to Vietnam).
Chef Darren creates this dish with more than 50 ingredients including reduced pork fat, shrimp, XO sauce, garlic, chili and a whole range of seasonings. It’s a house specialty and very unique. The lamb, which is imported from Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, was slowly cooked to maintain moisture, flavor and texture before being pan fried for color and light crispness on the exterior. It was tender, a generous size, full of flavor and lacked the dry, stringiness too often found in lamb dishes in this city. Oi’s reviewers were too full to sample the dessert on offer. Chef Darren’s favorite is the vanilla poached pear with Earl Grey ice cream. Desserts are his specialty; another option is the dark chocolate hazelnut molten lava cake with its own dark chocolate sauce, honeycomb and granola ice cream, which the menu warns takes 20 minutes to prepare. From a slightly disappointing arrival, clearly a glitch, Reflections over-delivered in its promise to be an enjoyable, fulfilling fine dining experience in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. The food is fragrant, tasty, innovative and delicious, the table service engaging and unobtrusive, the setting warm and relaxing. The best verdict on a restaurant’s performance is whether one would return. We would without hesitation.
Images by Quinn Ryan Mattingly