It’s a hard job, keeping up with Ho Chi Minh City’s gourmet explosion. A swank new restaurant opens every month, with the range of cuisines growing apace.
Truly spectacular steakhouses remain rare, but there’s a new contender: Stoker Woodfired Bar and Grill. Stoker, named for an eccentric 19th-century British nobleman, is a restaurant already much talked about for its dim-lit elegance and clubby comfort, its sophisticated staff, and especially its divine meat.
Welcome, Stoker. Can you ride with El Gaucho? Can your grill-masters sizzle up steaks of the same quality as New York Steakhouse? Your prices certainly match theirs.
Date Night Spot
I start out the evening with a whisky, another tired expat awaiting my date. It’s happy hour. The bartenders are knowledgeable, and at a 50% discount, I sample extensively.
The gossip is right about the bar being one of the best-stocked in Ho Chi Minh City. I nurse a Hibiki 17-year-old whisky (VND600,000), for many years rated the best in the world in its class.
When my dinner partner comes, she orders Mr. Phat’s gin dragon (VND250,000) the most original and excellent cocktail I’ve had in ages. It’s easy to see how he won a country-wide bartending contest.
As we drink, we nibble on beef tartare ‘blue’ (VND180,000), the poshest bar snack I’ve ever had, and the best beef tartare I’ve had in Asia.
The Mantra of Meat
The real test will be the steaks.
A great piece of meat is a special thing. There’s an aura around the best steaks, a mouth-watering beauty that other foods rarely match.
Stoker shows off its beef, dry-aging the cuts in a glass-walled walk-in next to the bar. The hanging slabs are hypnotic, and I read all the labels stating origin and age.
My date and I make up our minds on opening the menu, ordering faster than we ever have at a fancy restaurant. The house grillboard (VND2.29 million, with added foie gras costing VND220,000) sounds that good, a showcase for Stoker’s raison d’etre.
Sacred Cows, Divine Beef
We start with imported gunciale speck with parmesan (smoked pork cheeks made into ham, at a bargain VND80,000) and move on quickly to the main course.
The house grillboard arrives, the meat displayed on a simple wooden cutting board.
Every cut is thick, seared mahogany outside and a silken pink inside. The Wagyu filet is dense, revealing deep, intense flavours of beef and buttery fat. Each bit of the 21-day dry-aged Australian Angus sirloin lingers on the tongue.
The real surprise is the Spanish pork secreto Iberico, as robust in flavour as it is delicate in texture. The butcher’s cut skirt steak is a favourite cut, and Stoker’s example is world-class. The foie gras is superb, crisped brown and meltingly soft inside. We choose béarnaise sauce from among the half-dozen options. The sauce’s rich egg and butter enhance the charred crusts and subtle flavours.
For dessert, as full as we are, we splurge, getting chocolate fondant (VND170,000) and vanilla and oreo cheesecake (VND150,000).
Dining Like a Lord
The whole place feels like a voyage into an alternate neo-Edwardian world. The ambience is relaxing, even enchanting; deep and rich and imbued with nostalgia. The long, dark wood tables and leather chairs glow, the dim lights magnified by gold-framed mirrors. It’s a wonderful moment of peace, and my date and I simply sit for a spell after we finish.
Service is swift and keen, the waiters, host and bartenders know the menu and the dishes. Suggestions are spot on, and the food is brought out with quiet flair.
As with other great restaurants, Stoker reaches beyond providing food. It can be a sanctuary, a time apart from the stress of the world to simply, naturally, gratify one’s senses. It can be costly, but you can hardly do better in Ho Chi Minh City for an evening’s escape.
Stoker Woodfired Bar and Grill is located at 44 Mac Thi Buoi, Q1, HCMC and is open from 11.30am to midnight
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