“When I was young I wanted to open a small smoothie or café cart,” recalls Kalen Nguyen.
“Something very small like a wooden cart with only five seats.”
Much bigger than a five-seat cart, The Vintage Emporium, (95B Nguyen Van Thu, D1) Nguyen co-owns with her partner Linton Bortwick, is the latest trendy resto-cafe in Saigon.
“The whole concept is residential, a blend of French and Southeast Asia, which is kind of what Saigon is. The carvings on the wall are not necessarily Vietnamese but more Indochina or Thai and the weavings on the walls are from Sapa,” explained Linton. “Almost everything is either recycled or secondhand.” From the ingredients, design and décor down to the salt and pepper shakers, it is obvious where their passion lies – every piece of furniture and wall art ties in with one another creating gallery-like installations while still giving off a relaxed vibe. Upstairs has a more intimate setting with additional seating and an amazing wall of vintage photographs featuring locals spots around town.
As far as the menu goes Linton handles the food – writing up new menus and occasionally adding experimental dishes. During the opening stages, he reached out to various sous chefs around town for culinary advice to construct the café’s well-balanced menu. Now Tran Anh Tu and Dao Dinh Nam, both with five-star restaurant backgrounds, lead the kitchen. “The idea is healthy and quality food at a reasonable price.”
Kalen and Linton, who also have experiences in five-star hospitality industry, have the trained eye and palette for the perfect equation to a successful dining experience. Officially opening last June, The Vintage Emporium is the product of a lifelong goal for the couple.
The menu comprises of sandwiches from the classic BLT (VND80,000), Saigon baguette (VND95,000), to organic and fresh salads like their prawn and green mango salad (VND95,000) and more. And for breakfast, choose from a selection of scrambled, poached or eggs any style, toasted muesli, French toast or pancakes – you won’t go wrong here. Sourcing their breads from an outside baker, the cafe uses sourdough, rye, baguettes and sandwich breads that are also available for individual sale; while fruits and vegetables are sourced from organic suppliers.
Keeping creativity alive
We started our dining experience off right with a light, refreshing smoothie (VND60,000) – mango and lychee for me, watermelon, mint and lychee for my companion. I have made this mistake time and time again, ordering a smoothie before my meal and end up full before the food has even made it out of the kitchen. However, this was not the case here. Made with ice, fresh fruits and a dash of sugar syrup, they were light and refreshing – the perfect welcome drink.
We then moved onto the greens. Linton recommended their popular Smoked salmon salad with mixed leafs, capers and aioli dressing (VND145,000) and the Cajun spiced chicken salad with minted yogurt (VND120,000). The smoky flavor of the salmon balanced well with the creamy aioli dressing, complemented by tomatoes, avocado and fresh cut onions. The Cajun chicken salad (also available in sandwich form) woke up our taste buds from the Cajun spices used to grill the chicken. For those who have zero tolerance for spicy food, have no fear, the creamy yoghurt dressing and mixed grilled vegetables took the edge off, leaving tender chicken that made for a delectable dish. Both held up to their standards as favorites and we could see why.
We decided to split a main dish because the salads were of generous portions. We chose a traditional Italian favorite, the Pappardelle spiced lamb ragout (VND195,000). The pappardelle was slow-cooked until tender and then hand torn by the chef for perfection, the true Italian way Linton explained. The pasta was complemented by a red carrot jam sauce, Parmesan shavings and a crispy garlic breadstick, and left us wanting more.
Kalen and Linton like to keep the creativity alive in the kitchen, changing the menu every now and then. A new one is expected to pop up in a few weeks incorporating Moroccan cuisine while throwing in a dish we haven’t seen in awhile, an Australian meat pie. Those looking for a new brunch hideaway with friends or simply a fresh reading spot, this is it.
*Images by Ngoc Tran.