Holy water

A marriage of the sacred and urbane at Saigon’s latest restobar
Entering Shrine (64 Ton That Thiep, D1) is like walking into a neon Khmer temple, but one that serves cocktails and food. Soft, reverent lighting swims over walls of lava stone while primordial ferns rest in their volcanic potted houses and black-garbed staff brush silently across the polished floors like acolytes.
Shrine statuejpg
Australian owner Terry Gordon has been living in Indochina for some 10 years and took the inspiration for his new restaurant from his adventures as a film fixer, borrowing from the exoticness of Angkor Wat and the Cham culture. “We wanted to make a place that puts a touch of the sacred into the urbane,” he explains. And the result is a fusion of the ultramodern and the archaic, where carved idols and lush greenery blend together with a pink neon lit bar, and music is heard softly in the background.
Shrine elephants
The bar stands as the altar (and most drinkers would likely agree with this comparison) with a giant carved head of Jayavarman VII – the ancient Khmer king and builder of Angkor Wat – as its centerpiece. The downstairs space is designed to feel more like a bar than a restaurant, a place for after work drinks and snacks, with a large dining area being renovated upstairs and soon to be completed.
Shrine cocktails
We opt for a seat by the windows, beneath the gaze of stone Cham figures.
Wanting to ease into our dinner, we start off with some bar snacks, choosing the crispy-fried calamari and grilled chicken Mengagumkan satay skewers with Indonesian peanut sauce. “Mengagumkan” means “to amaze” in Bahasa, and the dish lives up to its title. The sumptuous chunks of tender meat are bathed in a delicious thick sauce and comes with a small side of spicy kim chi. The calamari is crisp and buttery, and deserves a second order.
Shrine calamari
We wash down the appetizers with a couple of cocktails from their Asian- inspired signature and classic cocktails. The menu lists names like Retired Samurai and Mr. Miyagi. I choose the latter, while my dining partner goes for the Old Fashioned from their classics selection (all cocktails are priced at VND140,000). Both are crafted from quality bourbon and fresh local ingredients. The Mr. Miyagi is bright and lemony, and includes maple syrup and Asian pear amongst its ingredients. It’s like a sunny karate chop to the taste buds. The Old Fashioned, flavored with brown sugar and bitters, has a certain fruity quality to it – both drinks are excellent.
Shrine cocktail
For the main we share the grilled sea bass with garlic ginger passion sauce (VND260,000). Chef Nino, formerly of the Park Hyatt Saigon, has taken his inspiration for the Pan-Asian menu from cuisines around the region and, as Terry puts it, “Saigonized it.” The hearty fillets of tender white flesh come in a passionfruit sauce, sprinkled over with basil leaves with a side of steamed rice and sautéed vegetables. The fish is juicy and succulent, with the bright passionfruit tang to balance it off. It’s a curious combination of flavors with mouthwatering results.
Shrine seabass
We finish off the meal with two more of Shrine’s exquisitely crafted cocktails, The Nagger and the Basil Brush, which Terry himself implores we try. The Nagger, inspired by Terry’s nagging to his wife during construction of the bar, adds another layer of passionfruit punch to the evening. Made from citron vodka and kumquats, it’s a citrus circus in your mouth. The Basil Brush, made from vodka and everybody’s favorite childhood drink, raspberry cordial, along with brushings of basil, manages the perfect balance of sweet and bitter. You get the fruity tang of the raspberry cordial with the fresh strawberries, and the permeating basil throughout.
Shrine skewers
While the food is delicious at Shrine, the cocktails are the real star, enough to make you want to chant in front of Khmer gods and goddesses.
Images by Neil Featherstone

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