An ultra-mod, white-and-red polka dot vintage scooter and sidecar rest prominently in the middle of the vast, high-ceilinged dining room, a room sectioned by a hip open kitchen and a couched lounge area in one corner. The walls are dark-red burgundy, with sprightly flamenco dancers, fans and bullfighters speckled throughout.
It might look it, but it’s not a portal back to 1980s Barcelona, all kitschy and cool. This is Tomatitos Saigon, the newest authentically Spanish restaurant overlooking Calmette Street in the heart of District 1.
“It’s Spanish culture, but done in a contemporary and quirky way,” said Guillermo Trullàs Moreno, founder and creative force behind Tomatitos.
Eleven years ago Moreno moved to Shanghai, and has since opened nine unique restaurants across Asia, each a special part of the El Willy brand, bent on bringing a taste of Spain to countries including the Philippines, China and Hong Kong.
El Willy’s eponymous flagship restaurant based in Shanghai, part of the elite Diners Club established by the 50 Best Restaurants organisation, was for Moreno the taking-off point during the creative development of Tomatitos Saigon.
“It’s like El Willy Jr.,” Moreno said. “It’s more casual, more fun, for a younger crowd.”
Case in point is the restaurant’s unofficial secondary name, Tomatitos Sexy Tapas Bar. “Sexy is attractive, it’s sensual, it’s fun, it’s cool,” Moreno said. “We’re playful and fun, and that’s what makes it sexy.”
A Mix of Old and New
When conceptualising the menu with Tomatitos’ head chef Julio Gómez, the first order of business was defining a fine and delicate balance between old and new. “We have the traditional tapas, the traditional Spanish recipes,” Moreno said, referencing the classic delicacies like chorizo, gazpacho and tortilla de patatas that have helped make Spain one of the culinary powerhouses of the world. “But we also make use of new techniques.”
He serves up one such creation, a twist on the traditional baguette-and-salsa combo available in Spanish cocinas. At Tomatitos, the bolsa de pan has been hollowed out, with delicious fillings inside. When a diner takes a bite, they enjoy an unexpected explosion of flavour.
But let’s face it: the true magic comes once the tapas start hitting the table. Perfect for an informal gathering of family, colleagues or friends, a fun night starts when you pick four or five of these bad boys along with a one-litre cocktail pitcher for the table (might we recommend the passion fruit sangria, which mixes red and white wine with fresh passion fruit and a kick of vodka, a steal for VND220,000?).
For the full Tomatitos experience, indulge in the atún con gazpacho (seared tuna loin with avocado mousse, gazpacho and black olives, VND145,000) and Salmon TNT 2.0 (explosive Balik salmon with sour cream and truffle honey, VND195,000, a recipe taken straight from El Willy in Shanghai).
A Spanish Taste, Abroad
More than anything, the minds behind Tomatitos are adamant about one thing: quality. Head Chef Gomez sees this as integral to his profession, which he has carried over from the previous restaurants he pioneered with Moreno.
“It’s impossible to get that exact similar taste from another country, but you can get close. The trick is to locally source some ingredients, and import the essential ingredients, the ingredients that give the food that Spanish flavour.”
While the cheese comes straight from the Spanish countryside, the patatas are local, fresh and straight from Vietnam’s premium food markets.
“The best compliment I’ve gotten here yet happened when a Spanish expat stood up after his meal and thanked me for giving him a taste of home,” Gomez said. “That’s when you know you’ve really done your job.”