What if I told you that what’s commonly known in Vietnamese as “nhậu”, the act of alcohol tasting accompanied with small amounts of food, typically reserved for the riotous weekend parties, has been elevated to an art in the most exquisite Japanese-themed bar in town? Well it’s happened. At Sake Central, the sakes are of course the top-notch Japanese-imported stuff at all price ranges starting from USD $5.00 per glass. The concept is the lifelong pursuit of Elliot Faber, the founder, who documented his acquaintance with sake, and his intoxicating passion for art in his book “SAKE: The History, Stories and Craft of Japan’s Artisanal Breweries“. Yet the otsumami (Japanese small plates not too far off from our “nhậu” in Vietnam) at Sake Central has been fine-tuned in many more aspects to match the vast selection of sake on offer.
First and foremost, what is called “sake” in other parts of the world is actually “nihonshu” (literally “Japanese alcohol”). At Sake Central, the rotating selection 30 bottles from Japan join an assort of carefully selected beverages like shochu, Japanese whisky and, uniquely enough, Heart of Darkness beers crafted specially for Sake Central. No expense has been spared in the Sean Dix’s interior design: black walls to keep the delicate sake flavours from light exposure, state of the art fridges, and soundproof ceiling for optimal acoustics.
Underneath the table glasses are boxes of Japan-imported sake rice, polished to various degrees as required to make specific styles of sake. “Everything is thought out and there for a reason; they all make reference to Japanese culture in some shape or form,” remarks Faber on the minimalist interior. “We want to share our version of sake culture and all of the surrounding details.” Even the personnel, like Jesse Selvagn, the in-house sake sommelier flown in from Washington D.C, is happy to give anyone a quick rundown on the specifics of sake-making in each Japanese town. Rather than a bar, it is more like a temple celebrating the beverages with international talents as its priests.
After visiting the flagship Sake Central in Hong Kong, Michael Piro, co-founder of hospitality group Eight-Four Collective, decided that that particular vibe would make a good addition to Saigon’s bar scene. “Since we live in a city of sensory-overload, I felt like the serenity of a Sake Central would be such a wonderful escape where you can focus on the drinks, foods, and your friends.” explained Piro. “We want to smash the condescending attitude among the industry-insiders of creating something ‘good enough for Vietnam’. This is not just good enough for Vietnam, but also Hong Kong, Toronto, every single big city in the world.”
This marks the first collaboration between Faber and Piro, who said they have plans to build a portfolio of venues all within walking distance of Sake Central, starting with an izakaya (Japanese dining pub) called Renkon. “We’re going to start a whole upheaval of what dining in Saigon can be like.”
According to Faber, it didn’t take much to persuade him to open the second Sake Central in Ho Chi Minh City. “Everybody was sold on the growth potential here. No other place can match it,” he said. The young entrepreneur has already made a name for himself in Hong Kong with venues Yardbird, Sunday’s Grocery, and Ronin under his belt. He is often found on site explaining the origin of each bottle. After all, unless one knows their ways around Hiragana and Kanji characters that decorate most sake bottles, it is hard to glean information from the internet about sake beyond the basics like the difference between Daiginjo and Ginjo. However, the in-house sommelier, Selvagn, and the rest of the team are always happy to talk about why a particular bottle from Fukushima or Saga is special, or why dishes such as the Baby Squid Salad or Katsu Sando (minced pork sandwich) would best compliment.
If Sake Central is the start of something new, I for one will be keeping my eyes peeled on what’s to come next.
Sake Central is located at 59 Dong Du, Ben Nghe, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City