Sam Aisbett brings creative fine dining to Ho Chi Minh City with Akuna
By: David Ho
January 19, 2024
Vietnam has long been a foodie hotspot, but Akuna at Le Méredien Saigon is here to take the dining scene in Ho Chi Minh City to the next level. Chef Sam Aisbett speaks to David Ho about opening a restaurant after a hiatus and Vietnam’s growing renown as a dining destination
A fairly new addition to the dining scene in Ho Chi Minh City, Akuna at Le Méredien Saigon opened in July 2023 to shake things up with its inventive take on fine dining. The place is founded by Sam Aisbett, the acclaimed chef most recently with Whitegrass in Singapore.
Aisbett opened Akuna after a self-imposed five-year break, having walked away from the F&B business at the peak of his dining acclaim in 2018. The timing turned out to be fortuitous, as he was spared the stresses of running a restaurant amid a pandemic that came shortly after. The break also helped him creatively recharge when the opportunity to set up Akuna came around.
First things first, Akuna’s name is derived from an Australian Aboriginal word for ‘flowing water’. The name is an apt one given the restaurant’s location overlooking the Saigon River, Aisbett’s Aussie background and his own free-flowing philosophy for the establishment.
Aisbett sees his and Akuna’s role as to “connect worlds”. Given his presence in Asia’s fine dining scene and Vietnam’s budding renown, it makes sense. Vietnam is hardly short on places to eat, with restaurants, coffee shops and street stalls on every corner offering options aplenty for every budget and dietary requirement. It has many championing its vibrant foodie landscape, with the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain even taking President Obama out to pho shops there. However, the country’s fine dining scene is still a star on the rise, with attention given more to its neighbours in the region. But the arrival of the Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City Michelin Guide in June 2023, as well as Vietnamese eateries making it on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, signals that the time has come for it to be taken as seriously as those in other cities.
“There are some really amazing chefs and good fine dining restaurants here, Vietnam doesn’t get the recognition that other countries get. There are lots of young chefs so they tend to be more adventurous and creative, which I really like. I think it will really take off internationally in the next three to five years, there is so much potential,” says Aisbett. “I even know chefs all the way in Australia that are now in talks to open restaurants here. So it’s just a matter of time before it really booms.”
Aisbett welcomes the impending explosion as he feels it provides good competition to stay creative and push boundaries. In his view, Vietnam is well positioned to be the next foodie hotspot because “they have everything.”
“You have amazing seafood here, farms, and you can even forage. The Vietnamese are also very adventurous and open minded, which I love because I want to do something different,” says Aisbett, who sees the dining scene as a culinary sandbox of sorts. Much like how he has been his whole career, he is eager to take local ingredients and use them in less conventional ways.
Aisbett regales us with tales of his adventures in Vietnam so far, be it working with farms despite language barriers or joining native tribes to forage for wild honey in the mountains. In some ways, it’s familiar grounds for him, given his propensity to forage for herbs and work closely with local farms back when he was head chef at Darley’s in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, Australia.
Going local and doing farm-to-table isn’t new these days, but Aisbett keeps it fresh with ingredient choices familiar to the Vietnamese but “remixed” in a way they have not had before. He is fully involved with every aspect of Akuna, from the locally-made cutlery down to the ambience of his 50-seater restaurant.
His thumbprint is distinct since it’s not often that one walks into a fine dining setting with Dolly Parton’s Jolene playing in the background. The decor of the place is equally as unexpected as the music, with a cosy counter seating arrangement around its open kitchen contrasted by a graffiti-filled doorway inspired by Melbourne’s ACDC Lane.
We began our six-course meal (VND3.9M/US$165) at Akuna with a serving of starters consisting of a salt and vinegar chip (one of Aisbett’s favourite snacks) packed with a cream cheese filling and impressively wrapped into the delicate shape of an origami crane; a scallop-filled taco sprinkled with weaver ants and kaffir lime lead; a ‘bird’s nest’ made up of fried kombu seaweed, smoked quail egg and caviar; a braised duck and taro dumpling with hibiscus powder and Vietnamese cherry (Ta Van plum) on top; as well as a fish sauce meringue with a fish made of raw daikon and edible flowers set atop.
This was followed up with a chawanmushi sprinkled with edible flowers and mixed with sweet peas. The peas add a light crunch and the flowers a chewiness against the silky softness of the chawanmushi. Texture is very much a focus for Aisbett’s cooking, likely a legacy of his training under famed chef Peter Gilmore at Sydney’s Quay restaurant.
The first course is bluefin tuna sashimi wrapped around Japanese horseradish to resemble the spring rolls so ubiquitous in Vietnam. This is served atop a layer of tonburi seeds (aka land caviar) and doused with toasted seaweed oil and a ‘bubble tea’ soy sauce topping. The end result is a dish that is surprisingly light despite the heavy umami flavours.
Between each course, carefully curated Australian wines are served to help one prepare for the next dish served. The next dish that came was a red braised goose with steamed Venus clams, spiced goose jelly, eggplant cream, and crispy sea cucumber. Aisbett’s focus on texture comes into play again here as the dish packs a mix of chewy and crunchy.
A quick respite from the six main courses is a serving of damper bread (sometimes known as bush scones Down Under). Aisbett’s take is a “crunchy on the outside, fluffy on the inside” version that reminds us of fried mantou buns. He takes his cue from the Aussie custom of serving bread with dips and offers us five: Vegemite and butter; German pork rendering with shallots; baba ganoush with bell peppers; cream cheese with onions; as well as sour cream with chives and roe. We end up having to ask for a couple more servings of the Damper bread to soak up all the delicious dips.
The third main course is arguably the pièce de résistance and one we were admittedly a little apprehensive about initially. The Akuna team serve up a dish of saltwater crocodile, over broken rice porridge, coastal greens and topped with runny shoyuzuke egg yolk. Aisbett tells us that the best cut of meat on a crocodile would be the tongue, which is what we are served in very thinly sliced slivers. Cooked shabu-shabu style, the meat turns out to be delicate affair, especially when drizzled in his ‘crocodile tears’ concoction (roasted crocodile oil and seaweed sauce).
The next couple of dishes turn out to be more hearty fare. We are given a butter poached quail breast complete with sour millet, white turnip, skin of Jerusalem artichoke, and Oloroso wine, followed by a serving of David Blackmore’s full blood Australian wagyu beef along with fermented quinoa, pickled mustard greens, fried seaweed crisps and kale, topped with the most flavourful puree of fermented mushrooms.
Come dessert time and the sweets are as much a treat as the rest of the meal. We enjoy a frozen Jackfruit souffle, a serving of petit fours, and the cutest scoop of corn ice-cream in a cone with caramelised corn topping and a chilli jam base to close our dining experience there.
What is noticeably missing from the meal is the formality and stuffiness that accompany some fine dining experiences, with chit-chat and banter flowing between guests and staff as freely as the wine. “I just want people to come in for a really good night, enjoy amazing food and service but have a comfortable and enjoyable experience. People should come in, have a laugh or do business here without too many rules,” says Aisbett of his vision for the place.
“Now I have more inspiration and energy,” he says. “I will continually change it dish by dish. We have so much stuff here, we can be creative.” With the arrival of players like Aisbett changing things up through Akuna, we have a feeling the Vietnamese dining scene is bound to be a lot more adventurous and high-profile in the near future.
Where: 9th Floor, Le Méridien Saigon, 3C Ton Duc Thang, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.