38 Dang Dung, Tan Dinh Ward
District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Positioning itself as a premier culinary destination for savvy locals and discerning visitors, Cafe If lives in a large colonial building with most of its original structure carefully preserved by overseas-Vietnamese proprietor and designer, Ming. Welcoming diners at the top of the steps of the main entrance is a large oil painting of a beautiful Vietnamese woman; dramatic. The interior is decorated with an eclectic curation of contemporary and classic Vietnamese art. One of the dining rooms has a gorgeous chandelier made of twigs and dried loofahs with LED tubes in them, handmade by Ming – very creative and covetable.
Unfortunately, I find the food to be average and did not live up to expectations at all. Considering the promise of fine dining in this restaurant, which incidentally happened to be the most expensive meal I spent on in Saigon during this trip, I expected much more than what was served: Calamari Grilled on Hot Stones (saving grace was the pile of what I think was basil; pardon my inability to discern as the smoke was somehow coming towards my direction fiercely and I was getting an impromptu steam facial at the dinner table), Salmon in Vietnamese Curry (meh), Salt and Pepper Baked Prawns (characterless), Banana Flower Salad (passable), Grilled Eggplant with Scallion Oil (you can’t pass this treatment off as gourmet, c’mon), Pork Ribs in Salted Vegetable Soup (the simplest, easiest dish to make at home with the most affordable ingredients ever). Be it execution, creativity or flavor, I was underwhelmed and I think the restaurant’s positioning is way off the mark.
I was offended that local Vietnamese beer (the cheapest brand at that) was marked up ten times and served in its original can which I had to open by me self. Uh, I was being charged how much for this again!? At the very least get the cheap beer poured for me into a cold glass already and don’t show me the can if you’re up-selling it to me at ten times its street price, or for Chrissakes, have the darn can opened for me if I must see it in a can!
Now I don’t know what the situation is in HCMC in this category of dining, clearly Cafe If is going after a certain type of clientele but I’d say that discerning, well-traveled diners and foodies who are ready to spend for a kick-ass gastronomical experience will be disappointed and feel jibbed. It’s kinda sad for me to say that the only thing I genuinely liked here was the green chilli condiment, comprised of ground green chilli, lime juice, herbs and salt. And the dried loofah handmade chandelier. :x
IMO Cafe If has potential to do a lot better. The colonial building has been done up nicely and all, only thing missing from the upscale promise is a menu revamp (a contemporary twist on classic Vietnamese dishes maybe) and a credible chef. The food always has to come first before the ambiance and decor, non?