“I wanted to introduce a new way of enjoying Vietnamese cuisine, along with flavours from other Asian countries including Korea, Japan and Thailand to create unique sensory experience of Asian flavours.” That’s So Yeon Kim – owner and creative director of MAD Society, which stands for Modern Asian Dining.
Hailing from Seoul, South Korea, So Yeon Kim fell in love with Vietnamese cuisine eight years ago and has taken up residence here for the almost three years. Initially, she found the limited options for food frustrating considering the abundance of ingredients and cultural influences in the country. With this in mind, she opened MAD Society in August 2017 to make her restaurant an exquisite homage to the versatility of Asian food, incorporating culture and cuisine from across the region with just a sprinkling of daring lunacy.
Everything from the decor to the live music harks back to by-gone era of decadent opulence – this is a place where you could imagine Hemingway getting fucked up in. This is a sentiment echoed by Kim: “We tried to recreate the modern version of the 1930s art deco style salon, where everybody gathered to eat, drink, and exchange ideas.
“Dining is a part of our culture now. And the experience of a dining space should bring more than just food and drinks. It needs to make you feel like another place in time.”
Kim had clearly channelled the spirit of Salvador Dali when designing the place. The menu too, is an exhaustive compilation of creations from a wide range of countries and cultures, all fused together into a beautifully artistic book. It’s reflective of everything in the restaurant; lovingly and painstakingly crafted to suit its aesthetic.
Firstly what strikes you about the menu is the approach is a far-cry away from the standard Vietnamese dining experiences. At MAD Society, they experiment with the concept of Asian tapas and succeed in creating some delectable concoctions, the likes of which seem to come from an Alice in Wonderland sense of creativity. Edamame dip with shrimp crisps takes the famous Asian beans and grinds them into a hummus-like paste that merges the familiar flavour with a new texture – it’s this sense of creative flair that sets MAD Society apart from standard Vietnamese restaurants.
“I get inspirations from my travels and also the seasons. When creating the menu, we try to focus on how the Asian flavour can make the dish different,” says Kim. She explains how closely she works with her team of chefs and grants them creative freedom in order to play around with fresh ideas, but crucially, they aim to find pairings for their edible experiments and their extensive wine list in order to produce a unique experience for their guests.
The well-presented culinary delights are like eating a series of art exhibitions, almost as if someone had let Picasso run amok in the kitchen, but with staggering results. The Phorrito – a burrito made with Pho noodles and beef – is one of the most eye-catching, mouth-watering permeations of traditional Vietnamese cuisines and modern dining. For seafood fiends, a fresh-fish twist on one of Vietnam’s most underrated dishes Cha Ca – the Cha Ca Taco – Kim explains that the Mexican influence on her menu is partly down to similarities between Vietnamese and Mexican cuisine in terms of herbs and spices, but she laughs: “It’s also partly my own personal preference.”
Whilst last month a $100 Banh Mi restaurant popped up last month in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi hasn’t been shy in welcoming the high-end takes on the usually affordable Vietnamese staples. MAD Society is one of the front-runners of the culinary craze, but it’s perhaps reflective of the changes taking place across the country. According to the HKTDC (Hong Kong Trade Development Council) the median disposable income in Vietnam rose by almost 46% from 2010 to 2016 and furthermore, their research suggests that there’s an increasing desire for quality over quantity. This marks a shift in attitudes towards wealth and with the rising middle class of young Vietnamese, the market for places like MAD Society is opening up.
But Kim is in two minds on the matter: “I cannot say if gourmet or fine dining is on the rise in Vietnam. For example, Michelin won’t be coming to Vietnamese any time soon – that will take a few more years I suppose, but I do see that Vietnamese locals are now really opening up to experiencing something new, and willing to spend.”
She goes on to explains that while the restaurant is located in Hanoi’s expat area, Tay Ho – almost 50% of MAD Society’s guests are made up of the younger generations of Vietnamese who are eager to experience a new take on their own culture and cuisine.
Kim is making it her mission to push the boundaries with Vietnamese cuisine and offer somewhere to eat authentic, local foods that exceed the usual limitations of dining experiences in Hanoi.
“We are working on revamping the menu in the New Year to bring even more creativity to the selections. We will continue with our Wednesday Big Band Nights and Jazzy Fridays, also we’ll still have the Wine Society held every 3rd Wednesday of the month.”
She adds: “Early next year, we plan to launch a Boozy Brunch with free flow champagne and oysters, etc. It’s all in the works now, so hopefully we can launch soon!”