Opulent. Extravagant. Lavish. It’s easy to run out of adjectives walking into R&J Italian Lounge and Restaurant; it’s like an upscale, 21st-century opium den, or the Las Vegas penthouse of an oil sheikh’s spoiled son.
Mosaic walls and mirrors, wood and marble, plush couches and vividly upholstered chairs, all under a swirling galactic ceiling. It’s rich, all right, but the effect is more overwhelming than awe-inspiring.
My date and I sipped on complimentary Bloody Marys — created in front of us, and served inside hollowed-out tomatoes atop crushed ice — and began our run at the menu. We ordered a large San Pellegrino (VND168,000) and my date chose a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc from the Viu Manent winery (VND188,000).
My date and I enjoy sampling widely from a restaurant’s offerings; this time one of us was celebrating a birthday, a good reason to indulge.
Also, I welcome a challenge, and reviewing one of the restaurants at Ho Chi Minh City’s sole six-star hotel is just that; it is, in some ways, the closest thing we have to a Michelin star in our midst.
Eat, Drink and Be Merry
Indulge we did, beginning with burrata (VND188,000), a dairy-fresh ball of mozzarella and cream surrounded by a skin of pure mozzarella. Next came the zuppa di pesce (VND288,000), a smooth slow-cooked blend of ocean flavours topped with garlic croutons.
My date opted for the cartoccio (VND268,000), a paper-wrapped sea of wine-dark squid-ink tagliolini, swirled with seafood and scarlet cherry tomatoes.
I took it up a notch, choosing the five-course Terra tasting menu, paired with assorted 12- and 15-year-old single malt Scotches (VND1,288,000). The mixed salad was good and delighted the eye — in fact, most everything at R&J was beautiful and cleverly plated.
The first real standout was the battuta — Piedmontese-style beef tartare, a dish not so much served as performed. My favourite was the caramella, a pasta of pumpkin, mushrooms and sweet free-range rabbit. The finale was the brasato; slow-cooked lamb shoulder, mashed potatoes and veggies assembled into an edible leaning tower, all lightly coated with coffee jus.
As if this weren’t enough, we ate tagliata di manzo (VND588,000) a simple salad mounded atop sliced US ribeye.
Finally, we split the tortino that finished my tasting menu; warm chocolate cake garnished with raspberries and served with vanilla ice cream. I splurged on a glass of Joÿ XO Bas-Armagnac (VND298,000) a liquid exclamation mark for the gastronomic adventure we’d just had.
Throughout, service was swift, ticking every box of manners and efficiency. Watching those specific few drinks and dishes being created in front of us was highly entertaining, and the bartender endured my barrage of questions with good humour.
A Brief Intermezzo
Every dish was creative and some — the zuppa, the cartoccio, the caramella — were brilliant, but note that a Mystery Diner judges restaurants based on what they set out to accomplish (and yes, on how highly they price themselves). A slightly cheaper eatery that reaches its goals will earn higher marks than a top-flight chophouse that barely misses the mark.
To clarify one more thing; the food was very, very good. Executive Chef Giovanni Parrella comes from a century-long family tradition of running restaurants, and he has assembled a superb selection of delectable comestibles.
I’ve been to Michelin-starred restaurants on three continents. R&J aspires to that elite company — and nearly makes it (in fact, I’d rate it better in nearly every aspect than a particular one-star I dined at in the US).
But in some ways, R&J, as good as it is, doesn’t quite measure up. They are minor quibbles, perhaps, but when one is paying this much, every detail matters; service, drinks menus, the precise wine or whisky pairings, the inspiration in every dish, every bite, those final creative touches to the food that make it dazzle and delight. R&J is almost there. Almost.
That R&J isn’t at such a world-beating level yet is as much due to the evolving nature of Ho Chi Minh City’s dining culture as anything they have or haven’t done. As this culture matures, those details will fall into place for many restaurants — including, I don’t doubt, R&J. In fact, they may someday be the first to earn that coveted Michelin star, when Vietnam gets a guide.
Regardless, R&J Restaurant is definitely a top-tier establishment, a place to go for indulgences and celebrations.
R&J is at the Reverie Saigon, 22-36 Nguyen Hue, Q1, HCMC
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