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Upscale Fusion Fare Mingles with Japan’s Izakaya Culture at NOMU

What exactly is fusion food?

Some could claim that Vietnam’s banh mi, bo kho and even pho represent fusion food because of their borrowing of ingredients and techniques from France. Others could argue that because tomatoes originate in North America, Italy’s “traditional” pizzas and pasta recipes are in fact fusion dishes. At NOMU, Saigon’s trendy new izakaya, the definition is simple: every item served involves balancing approximately 60% of one cuisine or region with 40% of another. The results are as creative and unique as they are delicious.

The Evolution of an Izakaya

Any proper visit to an izakaya begins with a beer. And on Saigoneer’s visit to NOMU, this meant a brash and flavorful 7 Bridges Imperial IPA. The Da Nang brewery, which focuses on American-style craft beer, was founded by a group of Japanese beer fans and thus fits with the izakaya’s ethos of crossing geographical boundaries to produce items that are more interesting than the sum of their parts.

While we sipped on the brew, NOMU’s founder, Tammy Le, explained the restaurant’s inspiration. During her extensive travels throughout Europe and Asia, she fell in love with the innovative interpretations of different dishes that chefs were concocting, as well as the relaxing vibe of the local izakayas she visited in Japan, New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore. She wanted to combine the two experiences, which would, like everything at NOMU, require a careful equilibrium.

Izakayas originated in Japan hundreds of years ago when thirsty patrons would sip sake directly at the distillery it was produced in. Over time, chairs were added, then small dishes that accompanied and encouraged a progression of drinks that starts with beer and transitions to sake and shochu. Situated in neighborhoods throughout Japan, they have become favorite post-work hangouts for workers emerging from trains and groups of friends wanting to meet up in a homey, unpretentious atmosphere.

Tammy grew up in Thao Dien and recognized that the neighborhood’s international residents were the ideal clientele for the type of high-end fusion food she encountered abroad, but couldn’t find in the city. When a cozy building became available on central Thao Dien Street, she knew it would provide the perfect after-work venue for relaxing and unwinding.

NOMU continues the tradition of izakayas while infusing some up-scale flourishes. Most noticeably, when stepping into the intimate 18-seat restaurant, one sees the large iPads mounted beside each table so guests can order quickly and simply. And as in most izakayas, the kitchen takes center stage, with the chic, minimalist tables and seats circling the bar offering a prime vantage point to see the chefs and bartenders pour, blend, chop, grill and garnish.

A Menu that Spans Regions, Histories and Flavors

Against a backdrop of rain before the restaurant started to fill up with people unwinding for the day, Tammy walked us through the menu that she had personally designed and taste-tested in tandem with NOMU’s head chef, noting how each dish adhered to their 40/60 philosophy.

The beef tartare we began with was the perfect example. While it gained fame in France, the raw dish actually originated in Mongolia, where nomadic people would place horse meat under their saddles as they rode. Arduous miles would tenderize the meat until it was soft enough to eat raw. NOMU adds Japanese ingredients to the equation by relying on select Wagyu beef and swapping out salt and pepper for Kikkoman soy sauce and cream. And because fusion food involves an intermingling of the senses, attention is paid to appearance via a delicate sprinkling of vibrant, edible, locally-grown flowers.

The gyoza was another dish emblematic of what fusion means at NOMU. When served in traditional Asian restaurants, the dumplings typically contain pork and minced vegetables, yet NOMU switches it up by filling them with baked shellfish and fresh brie cheese from Europe. Borrowing from Italian cuisine, they are then folded and cooked as one would ravioli. Visual flair mingles with flavor via a showering of cocoa and sea urchin sauce garnished with extra brie. The result is an exceedingly rich, creamy morsel truly unlike any gyoza you have tried before.

At this point, we pause to progress to the next drink. While NOMU features all of the sake, including Junmai ginjo and Junmai daiginjo; shochus; whiskeys and wines one would expect from a high-end izakaya, their mixologists also enjoy opportunities to explore what fusion means in the context of a cocktail. Their signature beverages thus blend familiar western spirits with Japanese ingredients. Fruity elements include yuzu, plum and matcha.

With an effervescent green drink in hand, we ask Tammy what restaurants she considers NOMU to be similar to in Saigon. Pausing to ponder, she finally offers, “none.” It’s not a reflection of arrogance, but rather an acknowledgment that they strive to do things differently. For example, there are a few other spots that offer excellent Peruvian ceviche, but nowhere else in town relies on Japan’s unique ponzu sauce for the necessary acidic element and adds a generous amount of ginger to add complexity to an otherwise straightforward dish.

Similarly, kitchens across the city make their own sauces, but few do so by boiling locally-sourced baked prawn heads for over eight hours and adding western cream and spirits. The decadent sauce is then poured over pasta generously topped with sea urchin and crab flown in weekly from Japan, European caviar, and dill. A single bite miraculously seems to contain the amount of flavor an entire plate typically holds. Thankfully, NOMU’s relaxed vibe, established by chill hip hop and jazz, invites lingering, as this is a dish to savor nibble by nibble.

Another unique item we sampled on our visit was the chicken skewers that are made similar to Hue’s famous chạo tôm, but take on a Japanese flavor thanks to a homemade teriyaki sauce. And the nori tacos respond to the question of whether one can ever have too much fresh crab (the answer is a resounding no!), especially when accompanied by caviar and wasabi shrimp roe.

Despite the seemingly endless stream of food and drinks, we still had a little room left for the creme brulee. The classic French dish was made with yuzu - an East Asian fruit celebrated for its aromatic nature. Its pleasant tang perfectly complemented the custard and crystallized sugar. The flecks of edible gold held on the final spoonful served as the perfect reminder that NOMU is not your typical restaurant.

Fusion food, however one wants to define it, may not be anything new in Saigon, but it hasn’t been done like NOMU before. The one-of-a-kind dishes, with feet planted firmly in both European and Asian traditions, upscale ingredients and intimate izakaya atmosphere all demand a visit.