Annigje Jacobs taps into Saigon’s newest tapas bar, Octo Tapas Restobar. Photos by Romain Garrigue.

Anyone who has ever been to a tapas bar in Spain knows it’s lively and unpretentious, full of people feasting on full-flavored food, a good amount of drinks and each other’s company.

And that’s exactly the atmosphere head chef Julien Thabault wanted to create in his recently-opened Octo Tapas Restobar.

The restaurant, less than a block away from Bitexco, is in an old building that has been renovated elegantly, with restored brick walls and tailor-made ash wood furniture, and without any unnecessary fuss. You’re welcomed by a display of fresh seafood and a 12-metre long bar that seats around 25 people.

It’s a design that encourages guests to interact. “We really want to mix things up, you might be talking to your neighbour and the guy behind you at the end of the night,” Julien said.

The stools at the bar overlook the open kitchen where you can see all the action. The cooks are happy to chat or advise you on the menu, although you probably won’t be able to steal much of their time, Octo has been packed since it opened.

Not least because of its excellent menu with timeless classics from Spain, from huevos rotos to the world-famous Jamon Iberico. You can choose from almost 40 different tapas and a few daily specials.

We try four dishes, starting with ceviche de atun rojo (VND140,000). It looks fantastic, and tastes even better. All ingredients are fresher than fresh, but one thing worth knowing is that Julien has made a deal with Phu Quoc fishermen to get his own selection of seafood delivered three times a week.

Next are the pimientos de Padron (VND 140,000). The small green peppers come with a wonderfully charred, blistered surface and crunchy salt flakes: simply perfect. Julien personally travels to Singapore for the Padron peppers, and Octo is the only place in Saigon that serves them.

The almejas con serrano y edamame (VND140,000) too, are absolutely delicious and an example of the chef’s ability to add a local touch, without ever perverting the Spanish cuisine. We finish with the PX Helado (VND 120,000). A combination of Osterberg’s homemade vanilla ice cream (the only ingredient that isn’t made by the Octo team itself), raisins and the famous Pedro Ximénez sherry. The four dishes are very different, and I’m equally impressed by all of them. And another great thing about tapas: you don’t have to choose just one, they are made for sharing.

Tapas and wine go hand in hand; the Octo team has created a wonderful selection with as many as six white wines and seven red wines sold by the glass, and many more by the bottle. Much like in Spain, indeed.

The only thing that says you might be in Saigon, is the list of thoughtfully-created signature cocktails (happy hour, every day 4pm to 7pm). Julien and his team aimed to create a fine-dining experience in a casual, relaxed atmosphere — and they very well succeeded.   

Level 2, 75 Ho Tung Mau, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City