THERE ARE ONLY so many ways to do fine cuisine – your à la carte restaurant, your buffet, your swanky café – but the Caravelle Saigon (19-23 Lam Son Square, D1) seems to have found one more. Determined to capture a fresh niche in contemporary dining, their newest venue Tapas Kitchen is the Caravelle’s tiniest five-star restaurant space yet. You’ll find it located just inside the hotel’s Dong Khoi entrance – ideally placed to rush right in, take a seat at the bar, and feast like a king before heading off to your next appointment.
It’s a brilliant notion, and the execution of it has played out very well for the Caravelle. Designed perhaps as a quick, trendy, and tasty stop-off point for light business brunches on the go – or easy gourmet hunger-busters with a fine atmospheric vibe – the restaurant’s compact layout has more in common with a simple food stand than a traditional Spanish bodega. What’s unique about this dining concept, however, is the contrast between its unassuming setup along the hotel’s short thoroughfare through to the lobby and the obvious refinement of its simple furnishings. Tapas Kitchen seats just five patrons at a short bar, but guests are treated to a full open kitchen experience as Chef Tu and his team prepare fine tapas creations in full view. For those rushing through downtown Saigon with just a half hour to spare and a penchant for something towards the upper end of the dining spectrum, this is a unique and intriguing option.
Originally trained in Italian cuisine – with a particular interest in its crossover points with classic Asian dishes – Chef Tu serves fashionable East/West fusion tapas bites with all the flair of contemporary plating techniques. The tapas menu, with its range of selections inspired by various world cuisines, changes each month to stay abreast of fresh seasonal ingredients and to avoid repetitiveness – regulars and first-timers alike are well-advised to check the restaurant’s chalk board to catch daily specials.
Tapas Kitchen’s August menu features a range of interesting gourmet options. We start with the house smoked salmon on crostini with chive crème fraîche (VND130,000) – an excellent palate opener, especially with its sprig of dill, lemon, and sprinkle of pepper. Do use the garnishes provided; the flavor is far richer for it. This is followed by a classic Mediterranean onion bell pepper compote with whipped goat cheese (VND130,000) – beautifully presented with a crispy deep-fried basil leaf, and nicely-balanced in composition so as to avoid being unnecessarily overpowered by the pervasive smokiness of the cheese. These two dishes are completed by a third bread-based item, a creamy duck liver terrine canapé on a buttery toasted brioche with strawberry and apple compote (VND228,000). Tapas Kitchen uses a ready-to-eat Rougie foie gras, which takes on the sweetness of the compote to realize a refined dessert in taste.
One of the most interesting among Tapas Kitchen’s fusion offerings is the Thai green curry chicken spring rolls (VND130,000), which are prepared to exactly resemble classic Vietnamese rolls with a deeply spicy filling recalling a fiery vindaloo. The innocent-looking sweet chili sauce they’re served with itself delivers a serious and delightful burn – not for the faint-hearted. These are nicely paired with a plate of lamb samosas (VND130,000) with well-rounded flavors, accompanied by a paprika and cucumber mint yoghurt that serves to cool everything back down.
Chef Tu’s best traditional Spanish offering is a crab omelet with gratin Mornay sauce (VND148,000), saturated in gruyere cheese. The generous hunks of crab give each slice a juicy, fleshy consistency, gently setting the stage for our last dish – bite-sized slices of Parma ham and mushroom pizza (VND148,000), served on a doughy base with olive oil, tomato sauce, and a side of rocket salad.
We take advantage of the neighboring Champagne Corner to pair all of the above with a nice Moet & Chandon Imperial Brut, an enticingly citrusy champagne that enhances the tapas servings with fine fruity notes. Beyond the bubbly, Tapas Kitchen has its own list of wines and other beverages on the house menu.
The restaurant opens at 10am and is open until 11pm at night. While its primary emphasis is on a quick, luxurious bite at the bar, guests can opt to order from Tapas Kitchen and take their meal at the Cafe de l’Opera across the passageway, with its premium views of the city’s municipal theater. That would be to miss the point, however – just as it is in Spain, the tapas menu is a wonderful exploration of tastes, and this unique upscale version of the cuisine and dining experience is one of those Saigon moments you really don’t want to miss out on.