A red-headed Jazz singer croons the lyrics of Gershwin’s Summertime to an appreciative Friday night crowd, the melancholy strains of a violin adding to the song’s languid yet uplifting melody.
It’s meant as a lullaby after all, and it’s perfect for this sultry, hot season Saigon night, perfect for the chic, laid back vibe of Inter Nos (26 Le Van Mien, D2, open for dinner only starting at 5 pm, live jazz on Thursday and Friday nights).
“And the livin’ is easy”
Open from the beginning of the year, Inter Nos has been living up to its Latin name, meaning “between us”, nailing the balance between great food and great space. Set on a quiet street in Thao Dien, the huge space (seating capacity of 250) has been cleverly designed to be something for everyone.
Stone, steel and glass give off an artist’s loft feel complete with exposed ceilings and lighting provided by both old-timey incandescent bulbs and lovely floor candles, and floor-to- ceiling glass windows creatively section off areas while maintaining the openness of the restaurant.
On this particular Friday night, diners spill out into the leafy outdoor seating streetside as well as the open courtyard located right in the center of the restaurant, drawn in by its twinkling lights and illusion of privacy created by purposeful landscaping. A large VIP/function room doubles as a kids’ corner where accidental friends colored, played and took their meals. While some couples gravitate to the intimate booth seating of the expansive back-lit bar area, most congregate in the main dining room with its eclectic arrangement of everything from tables for two to huge farm tables for 12.
The owners designed the free-flowing space to live up to its name, encouraging guests to feel free to mingle, from parents of children and their newfound playmates to acquaintances in Saigon’s smallish expat community.
“Fish are jumping”
Crafted by Chef Marco Cortesi who’s worked the kitchens of the Park Hyatt, New World Saigon Hotel and La Bettola, Inter Nos’ menu is squarely classic Italian, featuring dishes from the length of the country. His philosophy of cooking simple food with the freshest ingredients (cheese and pasta are among the ingredients made on-site) guides the menu.
We start with Parma ham with melon (VND249,000) from the north of Italy, paper thin slices of ham generously draped over large slices of melon, a delicious battle of sweet and salty, before moving on to an Italian tomato soup (VND180,000) served with aromatic croutons and a dash of cream ― simple and comforting while allowing the powerful flavors of just a handful of ingredients to shine through. Chef Marco hails from Milan so the Milanese seafood risotto (VND285,000) turned out to be a solid choice, al dente yet creamy, featuring octopus, prawns and firm chunks of fish, finished off with a touch of tomato sauce.
For the mains, we move to Italy’s south coast and its Mediterranean flavors. The Black fettuccine with spider lobster (VND375,000) from the day’s menu is beautifully constructed, tossed with olive oil and cherry tomatoes, and cooked from beginning to end in a single pan, ramping up its intensity by allowing the pasta to soak up the sweet juices of the meaty lobster.
The Oven-baked tilapia with fresh tomatoes, mixed olives and potato slices (VND395,000) is a wonderful combination of what Chef Marco calls “sunny ingredients.” Tilapia on its own is almost like tofu ― it’s lean, neutral and decidedly “un-fishy” which allows it to take on the flavors of whatever it’s cooked with. Here, it’s the clean slate for the tomatoes and olives which does very much taste like a sunny day in the Med.
The Chocolate fondant (VND175,000) for dessert was definitely worth the wait, one of the best I’ve ever had. Served piping hot in a ramekin, once broken open, it oozed melted chocolate and earns high marks for being rich without being overly sweet.
Children, especially, will love the wow factor of the Inter Nos ice cream (VND95,000). Made on site, it’s wheeled out on a trolley with a production of cutting out slices from the towering blocks. The vanilla is creamy, but the chocolate with swirls of coffee is a show stopper.
“Your daddy’s rich and your ma is good- looking”
Inter Nos is owner Le Hoang Lan’s first foray into the restaurant business. Lan (whose brother Le Hoang is a famous film director), trained in medicine and also owns Medilas, a chain of skin care clinics, but she is perhaps best known for being the General Manager (Insurance and Operations) for Prudential Vietnam. In her 11 years there, she helped set up the office and recruit a work force of 50,000 agents. Perhaps it’s her business background that has Lan surrounding herself by the best. Inter Nos boasts an Italian chef, a French sommelier to offer guidance on its extensive 200 plus item wine list, a French grill team who man the custom-built wood and charcoal oven and an excellent wait staff with stellar English.
Explaining why a finance / beauty expert would suddenly veer into the hospitality industry, Lan says: “We loved eating authentic Italian food in our summer trips to Italy, and I wanted to bring that passion back to Vietnam. I also found that I really enjoy meeting people and gathering with friends.I go to restaurants and see families quietly eating together so I wanted to create a place that was full of life.”
Between us, Inter Nos does all those things exceedingly well.
*Images by Ngoc Tran.