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Renkon Saigon: A Review Of The Modern Izakaya


Izakayas are quintessentially Japanese. They’re a place to unwind after work with a beer or something stronger and a few shared plates of food. Renkon Saigon is a modern version. The restaurant-bar, in the corner of the 74 Hai Ba Trung block, has Sean Dix interior design, an extensive menu of shochu and sake, cocktails and beers, and lots of skewered and grilled “kushiyaki” dishes.

Upstairs at Renkon Saigon, there’s an open kitchen and custom Sean Dix breeze blocks and furniture. | Image and feature image Justin Mott

Renkon Saigon: The Modern Izakaya

The restaurant’s name is the Japanese word for lotus root—taken as a tribute to Vietnam, the home base for the Eight Four Collective who are the group behind Sake Central and now Renkon Saigon, their flagship venue.

Eating and drinking at Renkon Saigon

“Kushiyaki” is skewered and grilled food—”kushi” are the skewers and “yaki” means fried or grilled. At Renkon Saigon, they grill on binchotan charcoal. It’s an authentically Japanese charcoal to cook with that burns at a lower temperature for longer.

Off the charcoal grill, Renkon Saigon’s chicken thigh skewers are sprinkled with spicy house-made shichimi and served with a squeeze of lemon. The baby octopus has tender chunks of meat served in richly umami okonomi sauce and katsuobushi flakes. And the pork meatballs are licked with sweet tare sauce and dipped into egg.

Renkon Saigon’s pork meatball skewers are licked with tare sauce and served with egg.

Chef Jesse Grasso has a diverse culinary background—from serving fuss-free seafood at Supermarine to modern Chinese at brasserie Bao Bei that rekindled Vancouver’s Chinatown.

The restaurant-bar also serve small plates of izakaya classics and snacks like lotus chips.

Jesse’s philosophy is “to change with the seasons but don’t change just to change.” His goat fried rice circled with Japanese curry sauce is the kind of evergreen dish you never want to see off the menu.

Renkon Saigon also specializes in the Japanese spirit, shochu. Sake’s reputation continues to grow globally, but in Japan, shochu—a distilled spirit usually made from rice, barley, or sweet potato—has overtaken the fermented rice beverage in popularity.

Renkon Saigon stock nineteen kinds. The Kumesen Awamori Koshu from Okinawa is aged in clay pots on the southern Japanese island which mellows its flavor. The Akane Kirishima Imo shochu, from Miyazaki in Kyushu, is floral and crispy. And the Ikki Deluxe has warm vanilla and caramel flavors after being aged in bourbon casks for three years.

There is a list of Japanese whiskeys that’s almost as long that includes the complex, spicy Nikka 12 year single grain and Suntory’s Hakushu 10 year single malt. And there are a number of sakes as a tribute to Sake Central Saigon. There’s the nutty, flavorful Koshino Kanchubai Ginjo Nama, and the umami-tasting Suigei Junmai Ginjo Ginrei that, like three other of Renkon Saigon’s sakes, is served by the glass.

Renkon Saigon’s Sudachi Margarita with Herradura Tequila, lemon, lime, and sudachi.

Besides the Japanese sake, shochu, and whisky, Renkon also serve a bespoke Pilsner made by Heart of Darkness Brewery. It’s a beer exclusively served at the Eight Four Collective’s two locations—Sake Central and Renkon Saigon. Even the cockails often come with a shochu base like the Hi Chew Watermelon—a mix of watermelon, shiso-infused shochu, and lemon.

Cocktails include the Hi Chew Watermelon with red shiso shochu and watermelon [left], the Hi Chew Passion with shiso shochu, passion fruit and mitsuya cider [center], and the Red Dragon with dragon fruit and shochu [right].

Inside Renkon Saigon

Renkon Saigon was designed by Sean Dix. The Kansas City-born creative is behind some of Hong Kong’s most talked-about venues and restaurants like Sake Central in the PMQ, Matt Anbergel’s Yardbird and Ronin, the neo-Parisian bistro Belon, and Jowett Yu’s Ho Lee Fook. However here, unlike in Hong Kong, there were very few constraints around what could be constructed so the interior designer could be more creative.

Renkon Saigon’s entrance in the corner of the 74 Hai Ba Trung block with its lotus-root embossed door handle. | Image Justin Mott

As with his Hong Kong spaces, Sean’s approach here is still typically understated. That’s noticeable the second you open the door with its lotus-root embossed handle.

Sean Dix began as a furniture designer and his Renkon chairs are stylishly sturdy. | Image Justin Mott

The custom breeze blocks are a classic high-modern design feature with a staggered pattern that allows light through. In the open upstairs kitchen, there are handmade tiles, and leading up to it, the staircase takes dead space and makes it a centerpiece of winding wood and subdued lighting.

The Sean Dix-designed staircase takes dead space and makes it a centerpiece of winding wood and subdued lighting.

There’s also a mural of Masami Teraoka’s 1982 work “31 flavors invading Japan” on the back wall as you enter that features an American woman in a kimono slurping at a stacked ice cream cone in Japanese ukiyo-e style.

A mural of Masami Teraoka’s 1982 work “31 flavors invading Japan.” | Image Justin Mott

And Renkon Saigon’s soundtrack is a mixtape-style selection of globe-hopping hip hop.  It runs from kitsch classics like Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life” to era-defining tracks like The Pharcyde’s “Runnin’” and Roots Manuva’s “Witness.” It’s a bumping backdrop for the crowded bar during happy hour.

Renkon Saigon’s opening block party with Eight Four collective’s Michael Piro and actor and producer Kim Ly. | Image Renkon Saigon

Renkon Saigon In Short

Try: Their “kushiyaki” chicken thigh skewers or baby octopus.

Test: Renkon Saigon’s nineteen kinds of shochu, like their sweet-potato Akane Kirishima Imo shochu, served on the rocks. Or try a lighter shochu cocktail, like their shiso-shochu infused Hi Chew Watermelon.

Shoot: Take a team photo on the Sean Dix staircase, a selfie in the grey brushed-concrete bathrooms, or one against the epic Masami Teraoka mural on the back wall.

In Short: Next-level design, a unique food and drink list, some of the best mixtape music, and a bumping daily happy hour.

Find: Renkon Saigon, 74/10A Hai Ba Trung, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City

Open Mon-Sat Hours 17:00 – 23:45

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