In the end, a great meal is just an emotional experience. We try to make it an extraordinary one by creating a beautiful place, one with staff who cares for you as the most important guest, and a kitchen that delivers the very best products of the Earth to the table.
La Villa French Restaurant
We break down why La Villa is one of the best French restaurants in Saigon
Chef Thierry, 37, first entered the Michelin-star arena in 2003, when he was hired by famed chef Christian Etienne, at a restaurant of the same name in Avignon, a commune in Southern France. The next destination was a Michelin restaurant in London. And then back to France, on to Bora Bora, and ultimately to Vietnam in 2008, where he worked on the 5-star luxury property Princess d’Annam for two years for the resort’s opening.
In 2010 he arrived in Ho Chi Minh City and decided to open La Villa with his wife, Mrs. Tina Trang Pham. Thierry wanted to craft an experience that imbued locals with a sense of gastronomic awe. In fact, he wished to recreate the feelings of a particular encounter he had when he was young. He recounted the story to us.
On a murky, grey day in France a young Thierry entered, for the first time in his life, a Chinese restaurant. (Actually, it was Vietnamese, as was the staff, like most “Chinese” restaurants around France at the time.) Upon setting his eyes on the oriental surroundings, he was struck with a sense of curiosity and wonder. The space was exotic and brightly lit, there was a woman singing in Vietnamese on the speaker. It was like nothing he’d ever seen before.
It was this experience, among others, that began his 17-year culinary career.
Sitting across from us, Thierry solemnly announced there is no onion soup served at La Villa. Onion soup is bistro food. Academic, by the book, cliché and what people expect when they go to a French eatery.
Thierry is not in the habit of doing what people expect.
“I am an onion soup lover, and would be most happy with some in a Paris bistro. But for [La Villa], it’s not what we want to introduce to our guests,” he says.
“I don’t like the word ‘traditional’.” True “tradition” takes the form of traditional family meals, prepared in ways unique to that family. Now the word has come to define textbook staples in French cuisine – just as a hot dog is “traditional” American food, or a spring roll is “traditional” Chinese food.
Thierry rotated one of the wine glasses so the Riedel logo was visible. He went on: true fine dining is the white linen, the glasses, the feeling that the customer is safe and fully enjoying the experience. It’s respecting the ingredients and sharing a moment. “We work for money, of course. But we also want to bring our culture, our creativity.”
Like Thierry said, the environment feels safe. He lives on the second floor with his family, which probably contributes to the homey feeling you get as you wait for your food.
The sunlit pool outside the window, the French art-deco, the Victorian artwork, lush curtains, leather chairs, beautiful wine glasses and, of course, the white linen all create the appropriate fine dining milieu, but they don’t feel overly stiff or formal.
Light jazz quietly wavers in the softly lit space, the wait staff attentive, disciplined, anticipating customer needs in a corner, while Thierry conducts voodoo in his kitchen.
Most of everything, down to the fine details, has been meticulously chosen. Thierry reminisces walking around the market for hours, trying to find the right light bulbs for the pool. The effort put into detail, the homey ambiance, the fine dining environs all merge to form a fervent question: what’s coming next?
It’s been an uphill battle molding a proper fine dining team. While his wife adapted quickly to the gastronomic scene, Thierry admits the difficulty of hiring a long-term wait staff. In the beginning, they walked out the door as quickly as they came in. It’s quite frustrating when someone you’ve been training for a year suddenly goes, he remarks.
But some stayed, and Thierry has since taught them everything he knows about Michelin-quality service, products and the passion of customer service.
The workers at La Villa may not yet possess the knowledge of elite wait staff in restaurants around Paris or London, but they’re more than proficient, and you can see they care about giving you the experience Thierry envisions. They are prompt, polite and respectful of the food they serve and the wine they pour.
Thierry aims to incorporate the politeness of the culture with the discipline of Michelin servers abroad, taking positives from both sides.
Nearly all the ingredients are imported from France. The food speaks for itself – of precision, of love, of obsessive attention. You begin to understand what "respecting the ingredients" really entails.
Here's a breakdown of our meal at La Villa, for further clarification:
Canapés (Bite-size food received prior to lunch or dinner)
We received a plate of four petite portions consisting of a seafood gougeres, candied baby tomatoes, veloute and zucchini with mayonnaise and red caviar.
The gougere was unassuming in appearance – a simple breaded sphere, a puff pastry consisting of flour, milk and butter. Resting inside was seafood chowder: thick, pleasantly warm and with just a hint of sweetness.
The candied baby tomatoes were ensconced in a sweet, thin caramelized layer, and were slightly acidic on the inside.
The conical glasses with the pinkish liquid were the veloute. With the consistency of a puree, the soup was perfectly spiced, a smidgen of oil adding to a more full-bodied, velvety mouthfeel.
The bite-size zucchini piece worked hand-in-hand with the mayonnaise and red caviar. You could tell this went through some experimentation before the three unlikely elements were paired.
We were presented a selection of six homemade breads to choose from. Expect a brittle crust and a warm, pillowy inside lightly flavored with its respective ingredient (such as onion or olive).
Amuse Bouche (a small bite that prepares your palate for lunch or dinner)
Croquette d’escargot is essentially a breaded ball with beurre persille – butter parsley sauce – and bits of snail inside. A glass of fruity Nicolas Feuillatte white wine was served with the croquette.
Traditionally, whole snail is usually eaten with gobs of persille sauce to mask the tepid taste. The croquette might be somewhat strange to those who haven’t appreciated escargot in its original form before, but it deserves a place in your gastronomic itinerary for its unique interpretation.
We were poured a glass of Soleil Gascon with one of France’s most desired indulgences: foie gras terrine. The duck liver is placed alongside some unsweetened toasted brioche (a pastry-like bread), Muscat-poached figs and salted honey caramel sauce.
Europeans and Americans who have tried pate in all its fatty forms will find foie gras a delicacy one can quickly grow to appreciate. Those hailing from Asiatic countries may find the initial funk and rich, creamy taste somewhat peculiar (the most common use of pate in Vietnam being a spread for banh mi).
Thierry’s foie gras terrine (terrine is coarsely chopped meat – in this case pork – with added fat) has notes of nutty caramel that goes well with the white wine, which is semi-sweet and on the stronger side at 11.5%, cutting the sharp taste of the foie gras.
We recommend asking for a bit more brioche as the block of spread you get is substantial. Top the bread with a good deal of foie gras, a poached fig and some salad – the spread by itself may be too buttery to eat alone, like eating luxury Nutella from the jar by the spoonful.
The waiter poured us some Yulamba Unwooded Chardonnay, a strong Australian white wine with notes of tropical fruit.
Before us, Ms. Tina set a large translucent plate, in the center a gorgeous display of roasted Canadian lobster amidst a celestial splatter of orange butter, some orange slices and a single star of anise. Beneath the lobster were two small mounds of grilled shredded vegetables.
Thierry uses a low flame for most of his food, and you can tell the difference with the roasted lobster. Unlike a coastal lobster prepared in, say, the U.S. state of Maine, which although exceptionally tasty (some of the best in the country), is ultimately shallow when compared to its gastronomic counterpart.
The lobster was flavorful, with a deep, permeating grilled flavor that seeped into the soft, faintly chewy inside. There was an absence of the mild seafood-funk usually accompanying crustaceans. Just the right amount of orange butter was provided to dab, and a few strips of salted grilled vegetables atop some lobster completed the mouthful, the chardonnay sharply cutting the salty aftertaste.
Afterwards, the orange slices provided a soft, complimentary sweetness to the intense savor.
Main course #2
For our second main course we were presented with pan-fried medium rare duck breast, with duck blood sauce and carrot mousseline. The penultimate wine pairing was a 2011 Cuvee Prestige from Domaine des Graves d'Ardonneau, a bold, sweet Bordeaux reminiscent of a heavy desert.
The duck was tender, the inside sufficiently crimson, with an absence of the fibrous, chewy texture that often goes hand-in-hand with the bird. The salted fat around the edges paired well with the two sauces and the Bordeaux, the combination of which left a warm, sweet, meaty aftertaste on our palate.
Prepare yourself for a waft of pungent aromas from the cheese tray. The cheeses are served with homemade jams, and the variety can be a bit overwhelming. We recommend you ask Chef Thierry or Ms. Tina for suggestions. We tried the brie, camembert and Brillat-Savarin for their soft, creamy feel and accessible mildness. If you have wine left over from previous meals, keep it around for some pairing experiments.
What does a desert on the caliber of a Michelin-quality restaurant taste like?
For one, it would be a shame if you didn’t have a decent port wine to go along with your seminal treat. We were given a Porto Ramos Pinto with our chocolate and red fruit sphere.
If a sphere of chocolate sounds mysteriously sensuous, it most certainly is.
Inside the edible shell lay a medley of chocolate varying in temperature and viscosity. The conjunction of warm and cold, thick and soft chocolate and sweet fresh fruit pieces – with chocolate syrup circling the sphere like some gastronomic planetary ring – created a resonant, melting sensation on the palate that, when paired with the port, produced an indulgent, layered savor.
Mignardises (small confectionaries)
Although we felt sufficiently full at this point, the thyme tea helped our digestion enough to make room for the final set of confectionaries: a lemon macaroon, a canale, a sectioned mango and white chocolate entremet, an orangette and an orangecello granita (shaved ice flavored with orangecello) with basil.
Overall, the course surpassed our expectations. In fact, it completely subverted any notion we had and instead hit us with a gastronomic experience not seen often in Vietnam.
What People Say
TripAdvisor gives La Villa 4.5 bubbles with over 500 reviews. The latest four pages of reviews have people unanimously praising the food, service and atmosphere. A few comments here and there mention the high price, but not in a negative way – in other words, it’s more than worth it for them. Some comments mention the expensive wine list, but overall reviewers say the quality of the food is on par – and up to half the price – of Michelin restaurants in London and Paris.
Café de l’Opéra/Tapas Kitchen
Café de l’Opera:
Taking its name from Saigon Opera House, which it faces, Café de l’Opera is a stylish cafe that allows you to sit back, enjoy the view, and sample a range of sweet or savoury delicacies and pastries. And if you can sip on a premium Lavazza coffee or luxurious Ronnefeldt tea at the same time? All the better.
With natural light emanating from floor-to-ceiling windows, the ambience of the cafe is further enhanced by the soothing strains of jazz and mellow tunes played by a live musical duo. Café de l’Opera is perfect for business meetings or friendly catch-ups.
A contemporary and social meeting point for epicureans who enjoy a taste of everything, Tapas Kitchen specialises in creating innovative small plates for sampling or sharing with friends by borrowing flavours and techniques from around the world.
The chefs add new specials daily on the prominent blackboard near the counter and servers are more than willing to recommend appropriate wines and spirits from the a la carte menu to pair with your meal. The long bar on the ground floor, with easy access to the street, is perfect for a quick business lunch or an aperitif to kickstart your evening.
Elegant Evenings @ Café de l’ Opera: An extended happy hour runs from 7:00 p.m. to midnight, offering 50% off your total beverage bill, excluding champagne, full bottles of wine and spirits.
All-new Afternoon Teas @ Café de l’ Opera: Sample their newly updated afternoon teas from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. daily, which features with a range of small bites from local specialties like “bánh gấc” to slow-cooked lamb puff pastry.
La Maison Wine Grill Bar
Tucked away in a small alley, this French villa is surrounded by water, tress and fresh air. The beautiful encalve has indoor and al fresco dinning, and offers fine quality French cuisine.
The pumpkin soup, smoked salmon, duck leg confit and Australian beef are noteworthy, and there is a wine for every possible dish or occasion.
Jardin Des Sens
French cuisine is often viewed as a work of art, a perfect blend of eye-catching culinary delights fused with an experience that is almost likened to storytelling. The chefs are the artists, the waiters are the curators and you, the customer, are the spectator. Therefore, it is no surprise that an establishment born out of this belief would sink its roots right here in Saigon, a city that celebrates the importance of food and art. It promises to provide you with an experience that you will probably remember for a while.
An Exquisite Culinary Experience
Located in a refurbished French colonial villa built more than a century ago just off the intersection between Dien Bien Phu and Le Quy Don in District 3, Jardin Des Sens is a 38-seater French fine-dining restaurant that provides the exquisite culinary experience you can expect to get with a pair of Michelin 3-Star chefs, who also happen to be brothers.
Jacques and Laurent Pourcel, the men behind Jardin Des Sens, believe that a good meal unfolds like a story with moments of anticipation and surprise, unexpected pleasures and special details.
Inspiration from Home
Their creations are inspired by their hometown in the south of France, with Mediterranean influences. The ingredients they use are sourced locally and around the world. From Alaskan king crabs to vegetables from Dalat, there is a lot of thought and detail put into the dishes crafted in this restaurant.
You can choose between the three, five or eight-course offerings. Serving sizes of the dishes depend on which of these options you choose, but Jardin Des Sens’ priority is to ensure you leave the restaurant comfortably full and extremely satisfied.
The restaurant boasts a selection of about 180 French wines that are stored in-house, and you can pair your food with any of these wines, with recommendations by the staff.
When a Meal Becomes a Story
Jardin Des Sens’ lunch set menu consists of a three-course offering excluding the starter and dessert at just VND630,000. You can choose what you’d like as your main, with a series of recommendations by the chef to accompany that course. With that, you get a very consistent serving of dishes that almost feels thematic, another aspect of the ‘storytelling’ concept behind this restaurant.
Notable best-sellers include the King Crab, which is served with homemade spiced mayonnaise and wasabi chantilly; and the Scampi, consisting of cauliflower mimosa, caviar and puffed bread.
The desserts are also worth a shout-out, especially the Soufflé, consisting of vanilla grand cru, passion fruit jelly and mango sorbet; as well as what is aptly called The Chocolate, a cylindrical piece of art consisting of guanaja and pistachio.
A Home Outside Home
The restaurant’s choice of location in a colonial villa is no coincidence either; the idea is to recreate an intimate and homely setting for its guests. Upon entering, you are guided by one of the knowledgeable and professional staff who will explain to you what the dishes are, and answer your queries in either English, French or Vietnamese.
This homely setting also extends to its creations, with most of its condiments, ice cream and even its soda water made from scratch in the restaurant, giving you an exclusive taste that you won’t find elsewhere.
Jardin Des Sens is a fine-dining restaurant that provides an experience beyond just a meal. This is superbly achieved with the expertise of the master chefs, and the dedicated team of professionals who will ensure your journey is a smooth and delicious one.
What Others Say
The restaurant scores an impressive 5 stars on its Facebook page with reviews mostly praising the quality of the dishes, the choice of location – a quiet area just a walk away from District 1 – as well as the overall experience that augments the food.
What City Pass Guide Says
The restaurant’s location, a beautiful colonial villa in a relatively quiet area just a stone’s throw away from the city centre adds to the charm of this establishment. The concept of storytelling also adds another dimension to the overall experience and the amount of attention and care put into the details, including its homely elements, and items made from scratch make this one of the best options if you’re looking for a French fine-dining experience.
La Cuisine French Restaurant
Scoping Saigon for where to eat fine French food in a cozy, home-like environment? La Cuisine presents a gastronomic retreat in the midst of the city center’s chaos.
On a hot summer day in Brazil in 1996 Erwann was promoted to chef at 23. He would either try and make it or fail miserably. Nearly 20 years later, the evidence speaks for itself. La Cuisine, a French restaurant near the center of Ho Chi Minh City, serves French cuisine that falls into the category of, “close your eyes and savor every bite”. Behind the scenes, Erwann is painstakingly observing, correcting and testing to see if his chefs are producing the quality he expects.
At around 6 years old, inspired by his mother’s and nanny’s cooking, Erwann designed his first themed restaurant: an eatery set in a submarine. While the idea never panned out further than a pencil drawing, his obsession with gastronomy translated into an international life of apprenticeships and perpetual mastery. In 2009, after nearly nine years working as the head chef for La Camargue, one of the city’s most famous French restaurants, Erwann decided to open his own restaurant despite many of his friends warning against it.
The eatery is now one of the top French restaurants in Saigon. Erwann has a keen ability to take elements from his childhood, his years abroad and the meals he enjoys of other notable chefs, and incorporate it into a fine French meal paired with some good wines.
White brick walls and French posters hug a cozy, two-floor interior. The space is more laid-back than the gastronomy at La Cuisine would suggest. And while the white linen only covers half the table, the chic, intimate environment pairs well with the finely prepared but nostalgia-inducing meals.
While the restaurant is packed on most days, with a more familial and colloquial air about it, on a quieter evening a more hushed atmosphere gives stray guests the chance to really focus their senses on the fare before them.
If you prefer to feel at home while you dine on top-quality restaurant food, La Cuisine presents an excellent environment in the city’s loudest and busiest district.
Speaking of familial, La Cuisine’s staff is limited, closely knit and joined with Erwann on his journey to culinary betterment. Several of his staff has worked more years with him than fingers can count. Others have come on board with little knowledge or pretention and have been built up by Erwann to the level they’re at now. As a practical chef who has built his experience through the chaos of kitchens across both hemispheres, Erwann has chosen staff that mirrors his capacity to learn and adapt.
As you can expect, service is courteous and professional, and the majority of the staff can safely give you excellent recommendations.
Erwann’s menu has some of longest titles for menu items you’ll see for french food in Saigon. The chef wants transparency, to let customers know exactly what they’re getting. A beef cheek, for example can be braised, stewed, pan-seared, broiled and so on.
The french and English menu specifies the method used to avoid misunderstanding. The braised beef cheek is cut in larger pieces and cooked for hours in a stock of jus de veau and red wine. Stewed beef cheek is cut smaller, and completely immersed in liquid during the cooking process. Asking for a medium-rare pan seared beef cheek, for example, would result in a chewy, inedible mess.
The dishes served at La Cuisine are French modern Mediterranean, and borrow French, Italian and even Japanese elements, along with elements from different regions in France, to create a sophisticated and quite detailed menu.
We sat down with Erwann to sample select dishes.
Pan-Seared Scallop on Kombu (VND 375,000):
We began with a glass of Moulin de Gassac, a relatively dry but still somewhat sweet chardonnay with a low gravity. This wine functions well as a sipper before the meal and goes great with the freshly baked bread and Erwann’s favorite salted butter, imported from Brittany.
We were presented with two dollops of pan-seared scallop resting on Japanese kelp (Kombu), covered in diced bits of oven-dried tomatoes, black olives and extra virgin olive oil. The lightly oiled vegetables and the soft, buttered scallop paired well with the dryness of the chardonnay, with the low gravity of the wine keeping the food from being overpowered by the wine.
Terrine de Foie Gras “Maison” (VND 415,000):
In the mood for foie gras? La Cuisine’s foie gras was served with Guerande rock salt, onion and fig compote, dark freshly baked multigrain toast, and some mixed greens on the side. The wine was an Allan Scott Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand.
Per our preference, we had the foie gras with the bread and the onion and fig compote, leaving the sauvignon blanc to sip afterwards along with the mixed greens. The foie gras was delicate, but not as buttery as we expected, likely due to the excellent compote and soft dark bread edging the richness of the terrine. The sweetness of the sauvignon blanc went smoothly with the lightly-dressed greens.
In the six years La Cuisine has been open, the osso bucco has never left the menu. It’s never left Erwann’s mind either. From the days his nanny used to cook the traditional recipe, to the plate set before us during our time at the French restaurant, the osso bucco has been one of the chef’s proudest and most nostalgic dishes, reminding many French customers of their childhood.
Exceptionally tender braised veal shank painted with demi-glace sits atop risotto alla Milanese, the meat soft, but not so soft that it loses its texture. A bit of creamy risotto quickly followed by some of the hot glazed veal is prone to close some eyes: childhood is just on the tip of the tongue. This one brings you back, even if you’re not well versed with French cuisine.
The paired Parallele 45 red wine unquestionably went well with the meat, but the osso bucco does not necessarily any additional elements.
The demi-glace is made in-house and comprises of oxtail, vegetables, wine, filtered water and spices, cooked for three days and two nights, a process not allowed in restaurants in France.
Trianon: Choco-Almond with Strawberry Sauce
Unfortunately this dessert was a special menu item and may not be available on the main menu at all times. If the occo bucco reflected Erwann’s childhood experiences of mouthwatering after-school dinners, the Trianon is the embodiment of childhood sweets in a refined, expertly crafted package. Chocolate, almonds, hazelnuts, and a layer of feuilletine produce a creamy fudge that is topped with popping sugar. Leave the fudge on your tongue and allow the sugar to pop under the roof of your mouth – it’s another eye-closer, and the Nutella-like fudge makes this an addictive treat.
The majority of reviews on TripAdvisor are five bubbles, with everything from service to food to the 79-item wine list lauded and relished. People comment the prices are high for Saigon but very reasonable when compared to French restaurants abroad. People seem to unanimously enjoy the cozy home setting.