To say that 2020 has been the year of food deliveries and home cooking would be an understatement.
There have been a few new restaurant openings (surprisingly) amidst this year’s uncertainty, but still, as the year draws to a close, Saigon foodies like me have become even more restless.
So even the slightest whiff through my protective face mask of new restaurants opening up lures me out to explore.
Which brings me to Black Vinegar.
On Nov. 20, Saigon welcomed this newcomer to its list of contemporary dining experiences in the city centre.
Invitations to new restaurant openings have been rare lately, so I was looking forward to this one.
Black Vinegar promises to serve up modern Cantonese cuisine as imagined by its executive chef, Tony Guo, and in doing so, takes full advantage of Vietnam’s abundant agricultural produce.
Chef Tony brings with him 20-years of experience in Chinese cuisine, as well as a ‘The MICHELIN Plate: good cooking’ review from Michelin Guide Beijing for his work at 8 Qi Nian at New World Beijing Hotel.
After inching my way carefully up the massive grand ‘ole staircase of the New World Saigon Hotel in my heels, I make my way to the restaurant on the first level.
The light wood surrounds and simple tabletops create a comfy welcoming atmosphere. It’s a total 180 degrees from the location’s previous traditional Chinese dim sum buffet restaurant – Dynasty – so it’s definitely a refreshing start to the evening.
With a live acoustic quartet in the background, the lounge area quickly transforms into a relaxing place to catch-up with friends, meet new acquaintances and get those selfies for the ‘gram with celebrity guests in attendance like MC Thanh Bach, actress/ model Quynh Thu, fashionista Thanh Truc Truong and rapper Wowy Nguyen.
Scanning the demographic and noticing a definite culturally diverse divide at tonight’s invite-only guest list, I can’t help but think it strange, this hodge-podge of people trying to make small talk.
Perhaps not just tonight’s menu is under close scrutiny, so I take note and attempt not to say anything silly.
I’m always glad to arrive at these jaunts early to take in the sights before it becomes busy. It’s good to see the decorations, lighting and spot the best places for a selfie, or in my case, a refill of whatever is on offer for the evening.
At this point, I find myself admiring the stocked Crudo Bar in front of the main dining area where fine wine, local and Chinese beers and spirits, handcrafted cocktails, sake and fresh seafood are on full display.
Mental note: I need to find an excuse to come back another time.
Not long after the pleasantries, the mandatory traditional drumming performance and welcoming speeches, I make my way into the main dining area where the real star of the evening has finally been assembled – our dinner.
Black Vinegar is a Chinese food condiment that’s usually made from unpolished black or brown fermented rice. It’s dark, smokey and a little bit sweet. It’s closest Western counterpart would be balsamic vinegar, in terms of look and taste.
It’s an essential part of many dishes here at Black Vinegar, either as a well-blended ingredient showing subtle hints of its flavour, or served on the side as a dipping sauce added according to one’s personal preference, which is what I like to do.
Adding drama to the experience is its presentation in a stylish earthenware pot which helps keep its flavour and strong scent intact.
There are 13 dishes including appetizers, signature dishes with vegetarian and meat options for us to sample.
But before I list the five dishes that have caught my attention, I need to come clean like a palette cleanser and confess that due to my excessive small talking and butterfly socializing, the wait staff aren’t able to track my movements fast enough to serve me some of the later dishes on the menu (apologies to the editor).
Therefore, this list is by no means definitive of the dishes to try at Black Vinegar, but it will at least give you a great starting point.
1. Crispy Taro, Vinegar, Chilli Oil
This humble root crop is now Instagramable! You can’t have enough of this fun, flaky sweet and crunchy appetizer. Fresh and easy to munch on, I had to be careful not to overindulge as there were many other dishes to try.
2. Scallop Dumpling, Crab Roe
For someone with shellfish allergies, scallops are a safe option for me to enjoy seafood dim sum. You know it’s a good dim sum when the wrapper has a translucent, crystal, soft and chewy texture. Box ticked on this morsel. I can eat these all day! Well, just my luck because until the end of February 2021, Black Vinegar offers an All-You-Can-Eat Dim Sum Brunch on Sundays from 11:30 am to 3:00 pm.
3. Cheese, Takesumi Bun
On brand and cute (is this an appropriate food description?). This definitely has no black vinegar in it, but it’s black and gold nonetheless. A sweet and creamy break from the salt of the earlier dishes. I’m not sure how many pieces are served in one order during the regular service. Best to save this for last as a sharing dessert instead of an appetizer.
4. Crispy Skinned Chicken, Black Vinegar
I actually didn’t see the name of this dish before I tucked into it’s dark juicy meat, but I actually thought it was a duck. Is that a bad thing? I went to town on the black vinegar on this one. I wish there was rice on the side. Makes for a hearty meal.
5. Crispy Cod Fish, Brown Sugar, Black Vinegar
As with the chicken before it, dipping (or lathering, in my case) the star condiment is to one’s preference, but don’t overdo it for this dish, and eat the fish immediately and stop Instagramming, as it tends to lose its texture when it gets cold.
Cod, such as Atlantic and Pacific, is listed as a specialty in Vietnamese restaurants. With Black Vinegar promising to introduce Saigon foodies a “never-before-seen slate of modern Cantonese delights which capitalises on the abundance of Vietnamese regional produce”, it would be good to know the provenance of their cod.
Supporting local producers as part of a sustainable food and beverage practice is not just a hot trend right now, but something all restaurants should consider as a long-term strategy and above all else, no just pay it lip service to in order to tick another box or to be perceived as on-trend.
Black Vinegar is located inside New World Saigon Hotel at 76 Le Lai St., District 1, HCMC and is open for dinner daily from 6 pm to 11 pm
Reservations can be made by calling 0914 391 171
Follow Black Vinegar on Facebook
Words by Melanie Casul. Follow Mel on Instagram at @melaniecasul
Photos & video provided by Black Vinegar
*The Bureau was a guest of Black Vinegar at its opening
**All product and service reviews posted on The Bureau Asia website and social platforms attempt to be as objective as possible