A new restaurant stirs up the dining scene with the unexpected
Enter Saffron, Tony Fox’s new Mediterranean style restaurant on 51 Hai Ba Trung, D1, and the first thing that strikes you is the terracotta pots. There are 450 of them – all mounted upside down at different angles on the ceiling as if pouring out warmth, intimacy and romance on the diners below. Many customers no doubt wonder if any have come unstuck: the answer is a resounding no.
The unconventional ceiling is a hint of what to expect at Saffron – the unexpected. There are no starters and mains on the Saffron menu, rather a long list of dishes from every spectrum of Mediterranean cuisine, some with a distinct Asian influence added for further uniqueness.
The dishes are larger than tapas but (usually) smaller than main courses, so a group of four should find themselves well and truly satisfied with about six dishes. Three will satisfy a couple, with the sharing concept guaranteed to add to the romance of any date.
Saffron is located 50 meters from Ciao Bella, Tony’s popular Italian restaurant on Dung Du and some of the best staff and customs of Ciao Bella have been shared with the new location. For example, the complimentary welcome drink of Prosecco when guests are seated, the freshbaked bread served with garlic, olive tapenade and hummus, and the moorish lemoncello delivered with the bill.
The biggest challenge for diners here is choosing from the extensive menu, complemented by a specials board that has even more mouthwatering dishes. The range stretches from cheese (more about that later) and salads, through seafood, beef, chicken, rice, pork and vegetarian offers, many of them unlike anything we have seen on other restaurants’menus in Vietnam or beyond. Some dishes are spicy, but most easy on any palate and on multiple visits to Saffron we’ve noticed Vietnamese enjoying the food equally as much as Europeans which bodes well for Saffron’s success in a fast crowding downtown restaurant scene.
We gladly accepted Tony’s offer to surprise us with a mix of four dishes he is particularly proud of. Each of the dishes exceeded expectation, perhaps explaining why this eatery has established a loyal customer base in just two months since opening.
First to arrive was the most spectacular dish, the Cheese Saganaki (VND150,000) – a large slice of halloumi cheese, fried and served on a sizzling iron platter. By the table, the server pours a glass of cognac over the cheese, then sets it on fire, an act of theater that attracts the attention of all the diners each time someone orders it. The last of the flames are extinguished with lemon juice. It’s covered in a soft, fragrant pesto and sliced tomato. Once the flames were out we tucked in and found the cheese deliciously chewy with only a hint of salt, not the overbearing saltiness often found in halloumi.
Chargrilled Octopus (VND195,000) was next up. The soft white meat was tender, not chewy, and it was laid on warm potatoes, Tuscan beans, kalamata olives and drizzled with harissa vinaigrette.
For those who enjoy a little spice, you cannot ignore the Shrimp Pil-pil (VND130,000). Fresh, tender meaty shrimps served with slices of spicy chorizo sausage, garlic and salsa bravas. It has a decidedly Asian kick this dish, but not too much that you’re left with a burning tongue.
Our fourth and final dish (and we were struggling by now) was a new signature special: Duck Shepherds Pie (VND240,000), a sensational invention in texture and taste.
Shepherd’s Pie is traditionally an English dish made with minced lamb, wholesome, hearty, and home-cooked to warm the coldest worker on a winter’s day. Somehow it still works in the Vietnamese heat, though. Switching twice cooked, boneless duck meat for minced lamb is a masterstroke. The tender, tasty meat is a perfect match for the creamy layer of potato on top. The dish is somehow soft and light despite its meat and potato composition. It’s delicious, filling and innovative.
Saffron’s menu is extensive, and you can dine to any budget, with dishes ranging from VND110,000 through to VND295,000 (and a Caesar salad for just VND90,000). Tony has opened an impressive addition to the downtown restaurant scene.
Images by Ngoc Tran