Australian chef Sam Aisbett feels much lighter in Ho Chi Minh City these days — five years after leaving Whitegrass, which started out as a modern Australian restaurant that he helmed from 2016 to 2018. During his tenure, the restaurant received a Michelin star in 2017 and was one of the more talked-about restaurants in town.
After a three year-hiatus, Aisbett has resurfaced in the fine-dining scene — this time at Akuna, a contemporary Australian restaurant, which opened on July 19 at Le Meridien Saigon in the business district of Ho Chi Minh City. When The Peak met the Australian chef in the swanky hotel restaurant, Aisbett looks firmly in his element — doling out the final flourishes of the dishes with a hawk-like precision and cooking chummily alongside his brigade of chefs in the open-concept kitchen.
Being away from the throes of running a restaurant for a few years and after some retrospection , Aisbett is more assured of his culinary identity and has learnt to hold back on the reins. He shared candidly: “I’ve chilled out a bit, I used to be a perfectionist and took everything seriously and tried to make everybody happy. Now, I just want to cook and teach my team as much as I can.” These days, he is taking up more of a mentorship role to guide his brigade of about 15 chefs, by having them give inputs and suggestions into dishes.
He reflects: “Back then, I did as much as I could — I came up with the whole menu and no one was allowed to do it. I was so controlling. But, I am older now and do not take everything so seriously. I want to keep learning and evolving.”
At Akuna, the cuisine doesn’t stray far from what he presented at Whitegrass: Modern Australian that casts common ingredients in an unexpected light, coupled with his mastery of melding flavours and textures from Western and Asian cuisines. There is also a leaning towards Japanese influences, from his days of working with famed Japanese-Australian chef Tetsuya Wakuda in Sydney, where he was the head chef at Peter Gilmore’s Quay.
But this time, he has turned to Vietnamese ingredients and cultures for inspiration, having toured around country and fallen for the “beautiful chaos” of Ho Chi Minh City. One of the highlights of the menu is the shaved saltwater crocodile with steamed garlic custard and rose heart radish features an uncommon protein — crocodile tongue.
The meat is thinly sliced shabu shabu-style, which brings out its chewy and fat-flecked edges. The dish also features other parts of the reptile: The stock is boiled down from the bones and meat, while the gelatinous bits from the tail are also used in the broth. Rounding out the dish are Japanese influences such as an umami white miso cured egg that sits on a comforting broken rice porridge.
Another Vietnam-inspired dish is the red braised goose with steamed Venus clams, spiced goose jelly, eggplant cream, and crispy sea cucumber bits. Taking its cue from the red braise sauce, the sweet, caramel-like sauce is a concoction of rice wine, soy sauce and sugar. The red braised goose is embellished with disc-like jelly made from the sauce, and tapestry of edible flowers and Venus clams.
Aisbett has also meticulously crafted each spoonful of the dish, with the creaminess of the eggplant cream mitigated by crunchy fried dehydrated sea cucumber, which curiously boasts the same texture as pork crackling. “Take a scoop right down so that you get a bit of everything,” he advises us just before tucking into this dish, and a couple of others.
The Kombu-Jime stripped jack sashimi is presented like a visually arresting bouquet of curls of Fremantle octopus, white pomelo, and drops of artichoke tea jelly, which harks back delicious memories of tucking one of his more popular dishes at Whitegrass, Australian Marron with fresh curd and pickled watermelon.
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Aisbett may be miles away from home but Akuna, which means ‘flowing water’ in Australian aboriginal language, is peppered with elements from Down Under, some obvious and some not so. Aussie elements come in the form of the bread course such as Australian damper bread (or soda bread) served with an assortment of dips, which alludes to the hugely popular Mediterranean cuisine in Australia. Dessert is a playful riff off Cherry Ripe, an iconic chocolate bar brand from Down Under.
The chocolate bar, which harks back childhood memories for Aisbett, is deconstructed into a cherry compote, coconut shards, macadamia and chocolate crumble. Another hidden secret (spoiler alert) is the graffiti-laden walkway to the restrooms, which is inspired by the ACDC Lane in Melbourne, named after the legendary Australian band. Look out for a motif on the wall that immortalises the crowning moment when Whitegrass broke into the the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2018.
Being one of the early birds in Ho Chi Minh City’s nascent fine-dining scene, Aisbett believes that the dining landscape will be fully developed in the next three to five years, with a growing pool of gourmands and the Michelin Guide expanding its reach in Vietnam. He says: “Locals who have dined here are well-educated and want to eat good food. While the local staff might not be highly experienced, they work like machines — they are hardworking and passionate.”
Like the imminent rise of the burgeoning dining scene in Ho Chi Minh, we can only wait with bated breath for the next iteration of Aisbett’s creation as he explores more of his adopted home, Vietnam.
Akuna six-course menu is priced at VND 3,900,000++ (S$218++).