The Refinery, Saigon

Given my seemingly insurmountable blog backlog of almost half a year, I’m endeavoring to celebrate “Throwback Thursdays” by writing about something that I had long been meaning to, but had put off for one reason or another. First up for is The Refinery in Ho Chi Minh City. Located in a cul de sac of restaurants and bars on Hai Ba Trung Street close to the Opera House and the historical Park Hyatt hotel, this bistro was formerly an opium refinery (hence the name). Now, it serves almost ridiculously cheap French and Continental fare. It’s also known for weekend brunches, but we decided to go for dinner in between exploring downtown District 1 of Saigon. It’s a nice dimly-lit, old-fashioned and romantic restaurant, and perfect for a first date in Ho Chi Minh City.

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For starters, she had a frisee aux lardons – a salad with “mustard leaf marinated bacon, poached egg and croutons.” (VND 160,000  or approximately PHP 320). The bacon was on the chewy, rubbery side, but the salad was fresh and the egg was poached well.

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I had the hand-cut beef tartare with rocket (VND 145,000 / PHP 290). This was good enough, especially for its price. I maintain that the execution of beef tartare at home (like in Brasserie Cicou, for instance) is superior. But again, I can’t get fresh beef tartare for this price here at home.

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Homemade gnocchi with gorgonzola, spinach and roasted potatoes (VND 225,000 / PHP 450). This was probably the best dish of the night, with pillowy soft dumplings, creamy but not overpowering blue cheese sauce. It’s hard to find good gnocchi in the Philippines, and even the Italian restaurants rarely serve it (or always run out). This dish started A’s love affair with the potato-based dumplings, and the disappointment brought about by the aforementioned lack of good gnocchi in the Philippines.

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My main was duck confit, because I always try to order duck confit. If it weren’t relatively pricy, it would be my favorite comfort food, being a tastier, fattier version of my usual guilty pleasure, fried chicken. The Refinery’s version was a free-range duck confit with rosemary apples and potato mash (VND 330,000 / PHP 660). This wasn’t a winner for me, with the skin being on the chewy side (perhaps not enough heat was applied to crisp it up). Neither did I care much for the mashed potatoes, which were just as gummy as the skin. I think the main problem with The Refinery is a tendency to have gummy (reheated?) food. Then again, for the beautiful ambiance and romantic atmosphere, an average meal at a less-than-average price still comes out as a net positive experience.

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For dessert, we shared The Refinery’s Frozen Cheesecake with Passion Fruit Coulis (VND 90,000 / PHP 180). This was another highlight to the meal, and well worth trying. I’m not a big fan of fruit-based sauces, as they are usually too sweet for my tastes, but the passion fruit coulis was restrained and well-balanced – a perfect complement to the rich, thick cheesecake.

In all, I would still recommend a visit to The Refinery for a date in Saigon, perhaps over a couple of drinks (they even have some Belgian and German beers, in case you were wondering) where the highlight would be the beautiful interiors, intimate atmosphere and the pleasure of the company you keep. If you want a lively party vibe, the al fresco area really comes alive at night, both at The Refinery and its surrounding watering holes. If you really want amazing French food, and are willing to pay a little more (okay, a lot more, but still cheaper than most other fine dining establishments), check out Trois Gourmands out in District 3.

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