Two Vietnamese women and their French partner have enriched Ho Chi Minh City’s foodie scene with a chain of bistros specializing in an array of exotic culinary delights.
Among the bistro-like restaurants run by Do Kim Ha, also known as Quynh, Vo Thi Dong Suong, and French national Noelle Carr-Ellison is The Refinery, nestled in an alley off Hai Ba Trung Street in District 1.
Built in a lesser-known historical location, Saigon’s former opium manufacturing workshop from the French colonial era (1884-1945), The Refinery prides itself on Continental gourmet food, mainly French delicacies, and an extensive wine list.
The restaurant, tucked away in a quiet courtyard amongst other eateries, opened in 2006 with a stunning indoor seating area adorned with custom-made furniture and lighting typical of Paris bistros.
The eatery also features walls yellowed by time, a mosaic tiled floor, and other architectural features left over from the opium ‘den’ era, as well as black-and-white photos depicting Saigonese lifestyle and the former opium manufacturing workshop.
Diners can also delight in the tiny wooden poppy blossoms printed on the restaurant’s napkins.
The restaurant’s welcoming ambiance is reminiscent of old-Saigon and features a wide range of gourmet dishes to draw in its expanding expat clientele, particularly during lunchtime.
Luu Vi Lan, a Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper contributor, said that he first met Quynh and Suong in 1998, when Quynh, in her 30s and Suong, about 16 years old then, were working at the first French bistro opened in Saigon since 1975.
Ellison, the restaurant’s French co-owner, has been working in different countries since she was 17.
She began her restaurant career by working at an Asian restaurant in Colorado and a large bar in New York in the U.S. before moving to various Latin American countries, Australia, and then Japan.
She came to Vietnam in 1994 at the age of 26 and has bonded with the Southeast Asian country since.
The trio began forging a close-knit and enduring partnership in the early 2000s and have since spent the last two decades standing by each other through each and every obstacle, including opening new restaurants, one by one, over the years.
Suong revealed that the group spends a great deal of time focusing on their ‘artwork’ by renovating the restaurants’ décor every two years and changing menus every eighteen months.
They ‘gave birth’ to their first ‘child,’ Au Parc, secluded in a French-style house near April 30 Park and the city’s hallmark Reunification Palace, in 2003.
Au Parc features Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and North African cuisine, good affordable wines, Italian coffee and freshly prepared juices and smoothies.
The menu is not limited to Spanish, French and Italian premium offerings but also includes delicacies from Turkey, Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Greece.
Au Parc’s charm lies in its frill-free colonial building, original cement tiles, bare brick walls, and worn-out window frames.
Murals vividly depicting life in these countries add a unique and serene feel to the interior.
Following the success of Au Parc and The Refinery, Quynh, Suong, and Ellison decided to try their hands at Vietnamese cuisine with their third restaurant, Hoa Tuc (Poppy) in 2008.
The chefs there have gone to great lengths to use Vietnamese ingredients in new ways without straying too far from traditionalism.
For example, the restaurant’s cha gio (fried spring roll) is prepared as a finger food version inspired by the Mexican taco (composed of a corn or wheat tortilla folded or rolled around a filling), while Hoa Tuc’s banh xeo (Vietnamese pancake topped with bean sprouts, pork and shrimp) also takes on a less greasy, crispier form.
Spurred by their fruitful attempts, the three women have opened Propaganda, another Vietnamese gastro-pub.
Located on Han Thuyen Street in front of April 30 Park, a stone’s throw from the trio’s Au Parc Restaurant, Propaganda welcomes visitors with walls adorned in propaganda paintings accentuating the value of labor.
Their diverse menus are indicative that Vietnamese gastronomy is not only about haute cuisine but also about minimal extravagance which can be enjoyed by people from all walks of life.
Dishes at Propaganda encompass components of the elaborate European main course alongside typical Vietnamese breakfast staples and snacks.
The restaurant’s specialties, including pho (noodle soup with beef or chicken), bun bo Hue (Hue-style spicy beef noodle soup) and bun thit nuong (rice noodles with grilled meat), please diners’ senses and tempt even the most jaded palate.
Drawn by alluring guitar pieces and fiery dances from Latin American countries, Quynh, Suong, and Ellison recently launched their Mexican restaurant, Khoi Thom, and are poised to launch another Latin American restaurant, La Chola De Lima (The Girl from Lima).
These luxury eating places are suggestive of the charismatic blend of Peruvian cuisine, culture, and history while evoking memories of a major migration flow from Japan and China hundreds of years ago which resulted in mixed culinary trends.
Ellison told Lan, the Tuoi Tre contributor, that the key to a thriving restaurant chain lies in a clear-cut corporate concept and the resolve to stick it out to the very end.
She decided to place Propaganda in an auspicious position at the very heart of a circle of tourist-packed relics, including the Reunification Palace, Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica, Saigon Central Post Office, April 30 Park, all located in the downtown area, and War Remnants Museum in District 3.
The French entrepreneur also made it a point to juxtapose the diner with their Au Parc Restaurant so that the Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and North African cuisine can best complement its Vietnamese counterpart.
She also noted as food requires its own decorative concept and an aesthetically pleasing ambiance to be savored, restaurateurs must be stylists, interior designers, and ‘know-it-alls’ with an in-depth knowledge of culture, history, and nutrition, as well as a keen sense of taste and smell.