Ho Chi Minh city, often still referred to as Saigon by its residents, sits on the bank of the picturesque Saigon river. It isn’t Vietnam’s capital city, but it is its biggest. A fact reflected in a chaotic atmosphere of rampant development and luxury living thrown into a blender with traditional temples, markets and lifestyles that have not changed in decades.
The sprawling city skyline is filled with cranes reaching into the clouds. Each one creating a gleaming new addition to a city that teems with new and modern skyscrapers. Some of the world’s top hotels chains have opened in the city including Park Hyatt and the Intercontinental, and each of course invites guests to sample world class dining at their on site restaurants. But for anyone looking to explore luxury dining beyond the hotel, pickings are slim. That is not to say there is nothing out there however.
Tucked away in the non-touristy residential area in District 2, is one such hidden treasure: La Villa. Standing with his hands at the helm is French Chef Thierry Mounon who opened La Villa with his wife Tina in 2010. A veteran of not one but two Michelin-starred French restaurants, Thierry brings a true fine dining experience with an atmosphere to match to the suburbs of Vietnam.
You enter La Villa through a driveway with plants lining either side and trees arching overhead. As you crunch along the gravel driveway the crisp white wall of the villa reveals itself to you. Depending on the time day and weather you can choose to sit inside in the main restaurant or outside alongside the clear blue swimming pool.
As you approach the front door the staff open it for you and welcome you in with a sweep of the arm. Instantly you are faced with acres of crisp white tablecloths, set off by deep red curtains, thick carpets, dark wood chairs and a large staircase curving up to the second floor. On the walls were artworks in ornate golden frames that contrasted yet also complimented the views out the enormous windows.
The quality of a French restaurant can almost always be judged by its bread and La Villa did not disappoint. Our bread basket was served warm and each of the breads we tried were light, airy and fresh. Clearly baked in-house that very day.
Next up was a trio of canapés including a tapenade en crouton, leek and potato soup and a salmon cake. The tapenade on crouton, made from chopped olives, capers, anchovies and olive oil was sharp and complex with the soft tapenade contrasted against the crunch and dryness of the croutons. This led naturally to the smooth and surprisingly rich leek and potato soup. Lastly was the salmon cake, which despite being only a bite boasted an intense salmon flavour. The accompanying mousse was airy and light with a sweetness that complimented the salmon.
Our amuse bouche was an angus beef tartare with a raw quail egg poured onto and thoroughly mixed into the beef. The succulent, juicy beef held together by the quail egg gave each bite a strong mix of flavour and texture without either one being overpowered.
La Villa’s signature dish is its fois gras terrine. This is home made by Chef Moulon from ingredients specially selected and imported from France. Served with ginger bread, fig in wine and honey sauce and toast, it is intensely rich and flavourful but never heavy. The ginger cut through the richness and added a bit of a bite. The crispy texture of the bread also complimented the soft and spreadable terrine. This dish was the first to be served with a wine pairing, a semi-sweet French white wine recommended by a knowledgeable sommelier.
The final main was an enormous slice of duck breast served with potatoes, carrot puree and mushrooms, cooked to the chef’s recommendation of medium rare. The duck, buttery and tender with a crispy layer of crackling, was excellently seasoned and perfectly executed, leaving a rich, meaty aftertaste. As with the prior courses, the accompanying Shiraz wine pairing exquisitely complemented the duck breast, adding satisfying extra complexity to an already excellent dish.
After the last morsel was devoured, the attentive staff wheeled over a cheese platter with over 25 cheeses from pungent blue cheeses to mild edams. The variety and quality were outstanding, and knowledgeable staff can recommend selections based on your tastes.
Desert was a crunchy and beautifully plated éclair with home made pistachio mint ice cream, fresh pistachios, and raspberry. The ice cream was sweet, light and airy – perfect for a hot summer’s day in Vietnam, while the éclair crunched then crumbled and dissolved when it hit your tongue. This light and breezy desert was the perfect antidote to a rich and sumptuous meal.
The final item on the menu was petit fours made up of a lemon macaroon, orange chocolate peel, strawberry tartlet and strawberry white chocolate entremets, accompanied by an icy orangecello sorbet. True to form each of these was a delight, but the standout was the orange chocolate peel. This was a delicious combination of bitter chocolate and sharp orange, and many more would have been welcomed.
Overall the meal at La Villa was flawlessly executed, meticulous and precise. This extended beyond the food itself, to the restaurant design, wine selection, and even staff training which is in itself an incredible achievement in Vietnam. It is undoubtedly a Michelin-quality dining experience, and in a city where no formal Michelin restaurant exists it’s the closest you can get.