If you think you’ve done tableside BBQ before, think again. Ever since Lavastone BBQ and Cocktail House (96B Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, D1) opened its doors late last year, it’s been on a mission to elevate the GIY (Grill It Yourself) genre so popular in Saigon from what’s normally either a chain-restaurant or a slightly low-brow dining experience to the next level.
Taking its cue from two of Japan’s best loved culinary traditions: izakaya, the casual afterwork gastropub, and yakiniku, any type of bite-sized grilled meats, Lavastone ups the sophistication quotient by pairing its carnivore–heavy offerings with the most innovative of cocktails.
As with any izakaya, you’ll find sakes and sochus, beers and spirits, but it’s really in the mixed drinks area where the restaurant shines. Helmed by Trang Thanh Tung, second place winner at the recent La Maison Cointreau 2016 competition, the bar at Lavastone turns out daringly head-scratching yet delicious concoctions. We take advantage of the 2-for-1 Happy Hour (2pm-7pm daily) and try the strangely named Escargot, one of the Tung’s winning drinks. Thankfully, no mollusks were involved in its preparation other than the conch shell it’s served in, a dessert cocktail that tastes like autumn, rich with homemade butter syrup, passion fruit juice and all spice berries with a buzz from Cointreau and rum.
We also enjoy the Vietnamese-inspired Non La, an homage to the hard-working fruit sellers of the city, with its hints of dried apricot, salty plum, tamarind and Ketel One vodka. Other signature cocktails push the envelope even further, like the Golden Experience, a play on Saigon’s coffee culture, with smoky whisky, sweet vermouth infused with coffee beans and a splash of bitters to recall an after-coffee cigarette, or the sweet and salty Maracuya Shrimp Salt cocktail, a deliciously tart, citrusy drink with a shrimp salt rim. There’s even a canh chua-inspired drink that I’ve made a mental note to try on my next visit.
“We saw a gap in the market for Lavastone,” says co-owner Milan Doan. “We didn’t see any real Asian BBQ restaurants with a bar; they mainly focus on the food, not on drinks. And the few that do exist were too fancy. Most Korean or Japanese places only had beer or spirits on the menu. We wanted to create a place where you could eat and drink and hang out with friends while still being affordable.”
While we soak up the cocktails, I notice the surrounds ― “factory chic” with warm brick walls, polished concrete floors, exposed ceilings and lots of natural wood ― trendy without being exclusive. Not surprisingly, the design was awarded a Silver Award 2016 by the Association of Retail Environments. “It’s fancy-friendly,” gushes Milan. “Lavastone is not really Asian, it’s not really Western. It’s a place where everyone can be comfortable, whoever you are.”
Our meal starts off with a Vietnamese drinking food favorite, Crispy fried chicken cartilage (VND69,000). Squeamish eaters have nothing to fear; this dish is more akin to popcorn chicken, bursting with intense flavor with a side of extra crunch, and with a much more palatable mouthfeel than its chicken feet cousin.
The Sashimi Combo was next (VND357,000 for 2 persons), a beautifully presented array of fresh buttery salmon, soft but firm akagai (ark clams) and hokkigai (surf clams), decadently salty, spongy komochi (herring spawn) and more, served over crushed ice with daikon and sea grapes.
Appetizers aside, we tuck into the grilled meats, starting with the A4-grade Wagyu (VND549,000), easily some of the best beef available in Vietnam, beautifully marbled to melt in your mouth. The beef is served simply with Himalayan salt to bring out rather than obscure the flavor.
US Beef is also on the menu, and we select the Boneless short ribs (VND179,000) paired with homemade tare, a wonderfully flavorful sauce made in-house from Japanese mirin, apples and pears that adds a sweet tanginess. Other condiments include scallions, chili, garlic, and a homemade green chili sauce.
There’s something to be said about grilling your own meat to your exact liking (with the smoke conveniently wafted away by individual, adjustable exhaust fans) that makes yakiniku dining so appealing. For those in a rush, the kitchen grills fish to order, including Norwegian saba (mackerel) with salt (VND99,000), preferred over Japanese saba for its almost double fat content marbled into the meat making it firm yet succulent, and Grilled sanma (Pacific Saury) in teriyaki sauce (VND89,000), a slightly more oily, fishy meat that went well with the mildly sweet teriyaki.
For those looking for a less meaty option, Lavastone also offers hot dishes and salads. Thanks to one of the well-traveled owners who spent time in Texas, Cajun shrimp (VND209,000) is on the menu, a hearty pot of river shrimp, corn and potatoes, smothered in a rich and very garlicky Cajun sauce so good you’ll wish you had something to scoop it with (the secret is in the orange juice).
To atone for all the meat we devoured, we also ordered the Shrimp and avocado salad, a refreshing detour with red and green lettuce in a tasty sesame seed dressing, a steal at VND75,000.
For those not content to prioritize either food or drink, Lavastone does an excellent job at making sure you don’t need to compromise with some of the most innovative cocktails in the city paired with beautifully presented, high-quality meats that will leave you wanting more of everything.
Images by Ngoc Tran