Savor the five-star panoramic view
Probably the biggest surprise about this season’s hot restaurant tip is that it’s not a new venue in the slightest – it’s one that’s been around for a very long time, managing to stay quietly under the radar while flashier inner-city rooftop bistros have come and gone around it. It’s time, however, for the veil to come firmly off Top of the Town (Level 25 Windsor Plaza Hotel, 18 An Duong Vuong, D5). Few eateries in this city can match its grace and almost none have as exceptional a view.
The key to a good rooftop venue is the sense of distance you get when you look out over the city, and by virtue of being one of the highest of its category here (based on the 25th floor of the Windsor Plaza Hotel, just several minutes away from the inner city by taxi) the sense of perspective available to diners is second to none. From Top of the Town (ToTT), Saigon’s chaotic labyrinth is reduced to neat rows of dominoes, and the smoky bikes seem as distant flocks of birds.
While it’s about time for it to become known as a dining venue proper, the restaurant has enjoyed some popularity as a functions venue – its split-purpose design lends it very well to evening soirées with a large outdoor terrace bar and dining area as well as a plush carpeted interior, both divisions styled after classical forms. The terrace in particular seems particularly Grecian, with its white columns and arches adorned with ivy and exotic flowers. A little gazebo sits politely in the far corner where you might expect to see a string quartet or an opera singer going over her arias. A good number of events have been successfully staged here, and it’s in high demand during New Year’s and for Tet – it’s about the only place in the city that has a clear view of all three major fireworks displays.
We start our evening out here, sitting close to the bar, vibrantly lit from below – while enjoying the fresh breeze that blows freely above the metropolitan structures far beneath us. A couple of classy cocktails slip down nicely: the Windsor Special (VND110,000) is a smooth pineapple juice based midori and gin that’s light and not too sweet, while the P/S I Love You (VND120,000) is a creamier drink with a few blended liqueurs and grenadine. If you’re not ready for alcohol, try the Mayo Tango (VND90,000), an orange, mango and pineapple smoothie with a dash of honey. It’s a fine place to be spending the evening, even if you’re not dining – I’ve put it on my list of go-tos for a quiet drink or afternoon coffee (a latte is VND75,000).
Inner city of lights
The time comes to move indoors and our view continues uninterrupted – the restaurant proper is surrounded by broad windows that frame the lights of the inner city for every table. It’s a truly international restaurant, with a menu presided over by Chef Fabrizio Valdetara, who moonlights between here and WMC’s Italian offering in Times Square. The cuisine at ToTT is more Asian/Western grill with favorites from across the spectrum – as expected for a venue in a hotel where guests typically hail from all over the globe. What keeps the menu from getting lost in please-all fusion mediocrity is the strong European tradition that informs all dishes, with much attention given to fine plating and quality ingredients.
We put this to the test by ordering a Vietnamese starter, the popular beef la lot (VND148,000). It’s clean and extremely tender, served on a base of rice noodles and set off by slices of raw starfruit and banana, with a tangy pineapple and fish ‘salsa’ on the side. We balance this with an Italian vegetable soup (VND118,000), a classic minestrone served in a bowl encrusted in pastry like an English pie. It’s served with zesty baby tomatoes and a pesto dip. Both appetizers are striking for their fresh, hearty flavors with strong herbal flourishes.
For our mains, we enjoy a warm mushroom risotto (VND188,000), served as a disc topped with shaved parmesan, which gives it a creamy texture, while the rice is served al dente like a good pasta. The star dish of the evening, however, is a rich beef short ribs (VND398,000) served off the bone with a side of roasted vegetables and drenched in an intense, aromatic gravy. It’s a gorgeous set piece, moist and soft from its hours-long preparation in a mushroom and red wine stew. It’s balanced with slices of crisp capsicum that serve to refresh the palate and it’s easily the finest European dish on the menu.
ToTT’s mains pair well with the Windsor’s classic Kromacher German beer – although we selected a Santa Helena Chilean cabernet, which couples perfectly with the short rib. For a five-star venue, the restaurant’s wine list is remarkably forgiving in terms of price considering the quality of the selection.
We polished off the meal rather extravagantly with some exquisite chocolate lava cakes (VND98,000), which remain soft and creamy inside despite being served at room temperature. It’s doused in a lavish caramel sauce and served on raspberry and passion fruit syrups that counterbalance the 90 percent cacao chocolate crisp-shelled casing. This one’s strictly for those who truly believe they deserve it, so be on your best behavior before you visit lest you miss out.
I’ve lived in Saigon for years without visiting this venue, and I regret not making the effort earlier. Perhaps its District 5 location makes it seem farther out than it really is – ToTT is actually closer to the inner city than any District 2 or 7 venue and its exceptional view alone makes it worth a look, the excellent menu notwithstanding. Don’t leave it too long before checking it out – you may find it becoming one of your favorite regular dining spots.