‘If’ is a provocative word. It’s a word of conditionals, of what could have been, what is and what could be. It’s the title of Rudyard Kipling’s best-known poem, a poem of determination that starts with the lines, “If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you.” It’s a word that promotes hope and regret, and a word that in its short two-letter form says something about the human condition that no other word can do.
It’s also the name of a restaurant and café on the outskirts of District 1, an Indochine-designed eatery full of quirks and little beautifully staged oddities. Which begs the question. Why the name? Why such provocation? Walk through the leafy garden, past the Imperial-influenced statues and motifs, the plant pots constructed of broken pieces of porcelain, through the art deco-style floor tiling and you start to understand. If things could only have been different...
Art and Cuisine
Café If has the past written and designed all over it, romantically so. Even the slow background jazz and classical guitar solos scream romance. Yet there’s a fun element to proceedings here. Take the art: oils of a man getting lost in bottle after empty bottle of wine; odd images of rare wildlife; a lily and a goldfish; lacquerware influenced by the concepts of yin and yang; an obsession with wine, good wine.
I’ve eaten here twice, and my last meal was nothing short of sensational. There was a group of six people dining over lunch. The New World wine emerged, as did dishes steamed on hot stones, traditional Vietnamese-style salads, a range of dishes cooked in fruit sauces and the hot pot — a fundamental of any good Vietnamese restaurant-eaten meal. What was clear was the quality of the ingredients — all well-sourced. And the prices. For a place of such quirky yet highbrow ilk, very reasonable.
This time round I came here alone and tried to remain anonymous — I know the people in charge. But having browsed the cleverly organised menu — there are literally only 10 main courses here, but each with vegetarian, meat or seafood options — I got caught in the act. Which meant that I could not be the mystery customer I had hoped. I still managed to pay for my bill.
My two dishes were every bit as good as the taste in my memory. The hot stone grilled beef (VND138,000) came served in a black pot with the marinated beef and basil on the side. Add the meat to the scorching hot stones, put on the lid to let it steam and after a couple of minutes the dish is cooked — a novel and enticing way of doing meat or seafood at the table. Dipped in a spicy but sweet cilantro, green chilli, lime and onion-based sauce, this was a provocative, fiery-on-the-taste-buds kind of dish. Moreish, too. I could have ordered it all over again.
The vegetable curry (VND98,000) came to the table bubbling away, served in a black claypot. Like all typical Vietnamese curries, it lacked spice. For a moment I contemplated ordering some chilli, but so packed full was this dish with tofu, tomatoes, spring onions, carrots and mushrooms that I felt perhaps the chilli would do the earth-red coloured sauce an injustice. Spice needs to be added in at the beginning, and although the kick would have been nice, the dish just didn’t need it.
For all the charming little foibles in its décor, Café If is a well-needed alternative to the growing roster of top-end Vietnamese restaurants in District 1. Even better, they’ve got a real wine list, not one just cobbled together for the sake of serving wine. The food’s something to talk about, too!
Café If is at 38 Dang Dung, Q1, or online at cafeif.com
Food, Decor and Service are each rated on a scale of 0 to 15.
13 — 15 extraordinary to perfection
10 — 12.5 very good to excellent
8 — 9.5 good to very good
5 — 7.5 fair to good
0 — 4.5 poor to fair
The Word reviews anonymously and pays for all meals