We don’t pay much respect to tortoises in the West. Besides being smelly and wrinkly, they’re damn slow.
In fact, they’re the antithesis of what we expect at restaurants.
We want things now, like the wifi password as we’re being seated; the spoon we nudged off the table onto the floor picked up and replaced immediately; speedy wait staff who don’t go into their shells at the hint of a discrepancy with the bill.
Make it snappy please.
I’m not overly-superstitious, but running a restaurant looks hard enough without having to worry if it’s hexed because of a name choice.
Why am I talking about tortoises?
Well, the people behind Qui Cuisine & Mixology in Ho Chi Minh City, see these crusty old reptilians differently.
Qui or quy means tortoise in Vietnamese and they are revered in Vietnam.
Tortoises represent longevity, power, tenacity and creativity – some of the qualities needed to survive in the dog-eat-dog world of hospitality, hence, the restaurant’s name.
The passionate chef whose impressive CV begins in his native Hungary followed by stints over the past 20 years in some of the world’s finest restaurants in Miami, Tokyo, Dubai, London, Paris and Barcelona is effusive without being gushy when he talks of Qui and the passionate people behind it.
“We love Qui as a brand,” says Molnar, as he outlines some of the group’s ambitious expansion plans for the future. “We really look at it as a successful brand and something that we can replicate overseas.”
For the time being, however, Molnar, who was there at the beginning when the hugely successful Zuma introduced a twist to the traditional Japanese izakaya way of eating and drinking in London, is ensuring that Qui’s cuisine remains as creative as ever but without confusion (“Sometimes you can be loose with the names of dishes if it sounds cool, but keep them short”).
The items on Qui’s latest modern fusion menu reflect that and offer a window into the influence his wayfaring over the decades has had on his palate and creativity.
Take for instance the Sichuan wagyu tartare rolls (VND2400,000) that resemble two Cuban cigars plated like they’re resting on an ashtray with some salt and pepper “ash”.
I’ve written before how I’m not overly fond of tartare, but these ones with their light and flaky wrappers enveloping a rich and peppery wagyu tartare with hints of sesame are hard to resist.
How could I not enjoy them?
They’re fun, tasty, textural and importantly, distract me from the fact that I’m eating raw beef.
Meanwhile, Molnar’s love affair with Japanese cuisine stands out like a salaryman at a J-Pop concert, with items like the mega-oishii Hokkaido scallop brochetas (VND125,000/ piece) featuring cilantro pesto and a tomato-chorizo crumble that’s as packed with flavour as a Tokyo-bound train at rush hour is with commuters.
Combined with the texture, the first bite makes you just want to yell one-word Japanese phrases across the dining room. Kampai! Irashaimase! Genki?!
I love the collision of the earth and sea aesthetics on the plate, but it’s the melding of flavours and ingredients from opposite ends of the Earth where this dish shines – it’s Japan and Spain in a bite.
Then there’s the ostentatious roasted bone marrow and capers (VND240,000), half-pipes of glistening white beefy-marrowy goodness gouged out of the bone with a spoon and smeared on crunchy bite-sized pieces of bread.
There’s something visceral about the feeling of sitting before a large chunk of meat, or in this case, a foot-long bone and knowing it’s all yours. I know it sounds Neanderthalic, but it’s all hands on and I love it. You’re mine, all mine.
At the bar, we also snack on the succulent panko (Japanese-style breadcrumbs) fish and chips (VND320,000) that we plunge into a delightfully tangy triumvirate of chili mayo, roasted garlic aioli and wasabi mayo dips.
But what got my photographer fogging up his lens was the wagyu skirt carne asada tacos (see feature photo), which for VND630,000 gets you a large sharing board designed for multiple people to DIY their own tacos.
He was so enamoured with this one that he watched over it like a Mexican drug patron out of the Netflix series Narcos would his plaza, affording me little opportunity to sample the goods.
When I did, what did I discover?
Something almost as addictive as the product being run in the Netflix series. That’s all I can say.
Qui’s menu is creative and has the hallmarks of a team that’s willing to stick their necks out for the sake of great cooking and who won’t retreat back into their shells when the going gets a little tough.
And for that, they deserve respect.
The menu is always evolving, offering something for almost any palate
The prices won’t send you spiralling into a bank overdraft (VND140,000 Malaysian chicken satay to VND1.55 million 500g USDA Omaha ribeye)
The ambiance finds a happy medium between fine dining tables to cocoon-like snugs for fun, easy-going groups
Try the chorizo and brie crostini (VND230,000) to get the party started
Don’t be fooled by Qui’s party bar image. It’s a legit dining venue in its own right
Business lunch meeting? Don’t forget Qui is open for lunch every day of the week
Qui Cuisine & Mixology is at 22 Le Thanh Ton St., District 1, HCMC
Words by Matthew Cowan. Follow Matt on Instagram at @mattcowansaigon
Photos by Mike Palumbo. Follow Mike on Instagram at @mikepalumbo_