A New York feel combined with a taste of Italy in downtown Saigon
Ho Tung Mau in downtown District 1 is the city’s emerging dining strip offering a growing number of European restaurants and cafes, expat-oriented bars and a collection of local street food and eateries as well. One of the recent arrivals on this strip is Italian restaurant Lucca (88 Ho Tung Mau, D1), in the site previously occupied by Flow Restaurant and Bar. Lucca has a cozy cafe on the ground floor serving coffee, breakfast and light lunch from early morning – and serving, in Oi’s opinion, one of the best cafe lattes in town. Walk to the back of the cafe and you’ll find a huge wooden stairway leading steeply to a sprawling restaurant area spanning three traditional shop widths. On first visit, many diners are surprised by the size and feel of the upstairs dining area, its rich dark wooden paneling and furniture a stark contrast to the lemon pastel walls downstairs.
Lucca was created by Brian McNally, one half of the duo responsible for famous New York eateries Odeon and Balthazar, amongst others. Brian has since moved on to another project in Europe, but his influence remains through the unique decor reminiscent of family-owned Brooklyn eateries which had traded for several generations. It’s all very new, tastefully decorated and with a New York-Italy authenticity you simply do not expect to find in the sweltering climate of Southeast Asia. Curved booths with high back benches create a romantic dining space for two, or there are larger more central tables for groups. A separate bar with polished timber and a backdrop of glass and bottles towering ceiling-wards offers a place for a pre-dinner drink. Despite its expanse, Lucca has a surprisingly intimate feel, whether crowded with diners or during a quiet evening spell early in the week. Since opening in July 2012, Lucca has been attracting a steadily growing crowd of local Europeans and tourists alike, the latter drawn by favorable reviews on Trip Advisor, or merely stumbling on the cafe while walking to or from their hotels.
Three of us (two Lucca regulars and a first timer) descended on Lucca in a last minute decision on a Tuesday night last month. We invited Chef Alessandro Ferretti to serve several dishes he recommended that we could share – and we were served up a treat. Lucca’s menu is Italian by nature, but with an international influence. There are no less than seven salads on the starters menu, along with baked clams, beef carpaccio and polenta, and all of the extensive pasta dishes are served in starter or main sizes. Meat lovers will enjoy the salume, a mix of cold cuts served with homemade gnocco bread – moreish salty, crunchy hot mini bread sticks to balance the cold ham and black olives (VND260,000). Chef Ferretti recommended the seafood salad (VND220,000) from the specials menu, with chubby moist shelled prawns on a bed of greens with marinated baby octopus, clams baked with melted cheese on top and an herbaceous Italian dressing. The greens were very fresh and the citrus infused dressing a great balance for the tender seafood. The serving size was generous for a starter.
Next came a new dish just added to the regular menu – Linguine Porcini with Seafood (VND240,000). Tender pasta mixed with large prawns, sliced calamari and mixed with a porcini mushroom sauce which gave the pasta a dark gray color. The pasta was tender and the mushroom sauce added an almost caramel flavor to the dish. Impressive as the first two courses were, it was the main dish that created a wow factor. Bistecca al fiorentina is possibly the largest steak dish available in Saigon. Designed for two, the dish comprises a massive 800 gram US angus prime rib, cooked in a cast iron pan and served at the table still sizzling, before being sliced by the chef. It is accompanied by small round roasted tomatoes and crispy baked potatoes. Even for two this is a massive undertaking if you’ve already had a starter (or two). The meat was tender, relatively lean, cooked medium rare. For VND600,000, it represents good value (it’s a meal for two remember) and there’s nothing like a little theater at your table when dining out. Other guests all turned their heads to spot the source of the sizzle and watch the chef’s grand entry.
Diners wanting their own more modestly sized steak can order a ribeye for VND400,000. The dessert menu here is much more limited than the range of starters, mains and pasta dishes, but those with room should find something to sweeten the finish: passionfruit panna cotta, classic tiramisu, apple strudel are all VND100,000 each, or there is ice cream at VND30,000 a scoop, or a cheese platter for VND250,000. The wine list is extensive – to the point it is about to be trimmed – but the choices range from an inexpensive Cono Sur Bicycle red or white by the glass or bottle, right up to options in the VND2 million + range. We chose a bottle of Organic Pinot Noir from the boutique Martinborough region of New Zealand’s lower North Island on special at VND1.1 million. Light, woody and distinctively New Zealand in flavor, it was a surprise to find such a rare and unique wine from such a little known place on a Saigon wine list. Lucca is possibly one of Ho Chi Minh City’s best kept secrets – a distinctly New York-Italian oasis in a busy Asian city which delivers everything it promises: great trattoria food, coffee and wine in a classy environment at a very reasonable price point.
Images by Quinn Ryan Mattingly