Forest for the Trees

Some of District 1’s best restaurants are not on the main thoroughfares you expect to find them

White Forest (14bs Nguyen Dinh Chieu, D1) is big, bold and beautiful. A blend of Scandinavian and European design and handmade Vietnamese furniture makes this an urban oasis, an ideal place to chill for a wine, tapas or a full Continental-influenced meal. Owner Thu Hieu Phung wanted to open a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City with a European offer targeting Vietnamese and foreigners alike. She chose a larger than average site with a wide street frontage and engaged France-based Vietnamese interior designer Anh Nguyen to create her ‘forest.’ The beauty is in the detail with features like hand carved Jaguar heads which front the arms of each of the sumptuous white framed dining chairs with maple leaf print cushions. A feature wall has rounds of local timber arranged in a mosaic and bracketed by slim pale bricks. The menu is fixed to a slab of timber, rustic brown sheets of paper with a cowhide cover, all strung together with a wooden twig and jute cord. Very forest-like.

It ranges from traditional breakfasts, artfully designed sandwiches for the first half of the day, then a comprehensive range of imaginative salads, pastas, meats and fish for dinner time. There is also a tapas menu on a blackboard which is changed frequently. These options can include oysters, foie gras, cheeses, snow fish, meats and an avocado salad. The Meal White Forest’s menu is of a generic European style – neither Italian, French, Spanish nor Mediterranean – it draws on flavors from across the continent.

White Forest-IMG_3609-SEP13-Issue 7-QRMFor starters we tried the beef carpaccio with foie gras, truffle paste, rocket salad and parmesan cheese (VND175,000) and the orange salad with mixed leaves, walnuts, cherry tomatoes, feta cheese, red onions and orange dressing (VND155,000). The beef was astonishingly thin, and thus very soft, almost melting in the mouth. Drizzled with olive oil and served with large slices of parmesan, it teased the palate but did not leave us feeling too full, rather heightening the anticipation of our mains, which is the whole point of a starter, after all. The salad was amongst the best we have tried in Ho Chi Minh City, crisp leaves of purple and green, juicy chunks of orange, soft moist feta cheese and juicy baby tomatoes. In a way the salad heralded the overwhelming lasting impression of White Forest: Fresh.

Every item we have tasted on the menu looked and tasted as if it had just been harvested or caught. In a country with supply chain challenges as harsh as Vietnam, that is no small achievement. With three of us enjoying the dining experience, we were able to choose three contrasting main courses, each recommended by different staff. Our waiter was very eager for us to try the rack of lamb with butter spinach and blackberry sauce (VND370,000) “How many restaurants have you been to where lamb is served with blackberry sauce?” he challenged. None, of course, so we accepted the dare. Our second choice was pan fried veal with mixed seafood in white wine sauce (VND195,000) and our third, duck breast with orange and prune sauce (VND245,000). Duck served roasted or baked European style is a dish often poorly presented in Asia – too raw, it can be tough or stringy. White Forest’s version was tender and pink – some may find it a little too well done, but we appreciated the texture and flavor, and the piquancy of the orange sauce mixed with the sweetness of the prunes.

White Forest-IMG_3619-SEP13-Issue 7-QRMThe lamb was pink, succulent and tender and served on a potato gratin foundation angled like a whole fish at first glance. The berry sauce proved a delicious accompaniment so we were pleased we heeded our waiter’s advice. The veal was pink and tender, probably redder and more like beef than many Westerners would expect. It was served delicately balanced on a mound of creamy potato, itself sitting on a ‘raft’ of three fresh asparagus spears and augmented with a prawn, cockle and mussel. Perhaps the only disappointment about White Forest is its dessert menu which is surprisingly limited given the innovative nature of earlier courses. The only options are chocolate mousse cake, cheesecake, panacotta, a semi fredo with pistachio and prune or a walnut brownie. To be honest, most diners will be well satisfied before dessert anyway. White Forest may be new, a little over a month old, but it feels established and confident. The design is extraordinary and refreshing without being the least bit ostentatious, the food is fresh, tasty and modestly priced and the service friendly and attentive. This reviewer has already been back!

Images by Quinn Ryan Mattingly

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