23 Feb 2020
Sitting down for lunch with foodie and SecretEATS guru, Gregory Zeleny, The Watermark uncovers the culinary delights of Central Vietnam.
‘I’m a huge food and wine lover,’ says Gregory Zeleny, one of Hoi An’s resident foodies. Indeed whilst there are a huge number of activities to do around Central Vietnam, from playing golf, at one of five golf courses, to photography tours with Emmy winning photographers, sometimes the best days are spent relaxing at restaurants and coffee shops.
And that’s exactly what we’re doing today at Rosie’s Café in Hoi An Ancient Town, Greg’s choice of venue. The two people sitting next to us perfectly illustrate why we are here - the place simply brings people together, it connects them.
‘…this guy rocks up at the table and the girl says “you can’t sit here!” He says back: “but there’s nowhere for me to sit” and now, fifteen minutes later, they’re making friends! It’s magic. That happens over and over again in places in this.’
Rosie’s Café is run by two young, motivated Vietnamese woman but serves predominantly Western food, catering toward a fresh, healthy lifestyle, making it popular with travellers and Western ex-pats alike, for a lazy brunch or late breakfast. 'The whole concept or bringing together, the food, the shared tables…'
That, in Greg's mind, more than the food, is what makes this place great, and what makes food in general so great together.
It also helps that Rosie’s has some great vegan and vegetarian options. For much of his life, Gregory was a self-confessed 'meat and potatoes guy' but since arriving in Vietnam he's made the move to eating a predominately plant-based diet... ‘This is one of the best place’s that has something for everyone…’ he explains.
What is SecretEATS?
It’s this love of bringing together people from different backgrounds, who might never have been friends, that inspired Greg to start his SecretEATS project. The concept, he explains, is simple.
‘It’s essentially a pop-up dining experience. You don’t know where you’re going, who else is coming or who is cooking for you. You don’t know what’s on the menu...you don’t really know anything! People sign up on the website and when we have a matching experience, all you’ll get is an invitation. The invite just gives some basic information, some clues about the experience but nothing too revealing. On the day, guests receive an email and an SMS telling you where to meet.’
‘Sometimes the meeting spot is where you’re going to eat or sometimes you walk a bit from the location to where we’ll enjoy dinner or drinks. Our pop-up dinner parties typically host 20-25 guests for a social, communal experience. We invite a guest chef to create a menu exclusively for the evening which might take place in an art gallery, a wine cellar, a private garden or a rooftop in Hoi An Ancient Town at night. We even hosted a dinner in an ancient castle once. That was pretty cool.’
‘Guests usually come with one or two people max. We usually say you can book up to 5 tickets when you make a booking and if someone wants to bring more, of course that’s alright, but the whole idea is that it’s a social experience and that you meet people that you haven’t met before, to build bridges, make connections.’
The project has been a huge success and has been featured in the New York Times and Food and Home.
Last year, SecretEATS started hosting a daily cocktail experience where guests can get the chance to experience the back alleys, secret passages and hidden spots of Hoi An but over drinks rather than food. At each of their off-the-beaten-path spaces you get to enjoy a secret cocktail, completely off the main menu, along with a small snack while learning about the space and a bit about Old Town and its history with our local experience hosts.
From South Africa to Vietnam
SecretEATS came to life on a trip to South Africa.
‘I was working for American Express back in the States, based at their corporate headquarters in New York,’ the corporate grind, as Gregory describes it. I knew it was time for a change but I didn’t know what I wanted to do or where I wanted to be so I asked to move into a virtual role. I didn’t think it would work out but, to my surprise, they let me do it.
So, I went virtual. At first, I just worked from my apartment in Manhattan, then moved to Florida for a few months. Then, I decided to go on a working holiday to South Africa. From the moment I stepped foot in Cape Town, I was in love with the place. It is a vibrant, energetic city on the coast and surrounded by nature, in the middle of Africa that somehow feels European in its love for food, wine, art, music and travel. Simply put, I fell in love with it. After about a month being there, I knew that I wanted to stay. And, I figured, why not, I’m working remotely anyway. Of course, I didn’t tell American Express because I didn’t think they’d be happy with that set up!’
‘In South Africa I realised that a lot of the people I was hanging out with were just the same people…I didn’t go there to do the same things and hang out with the same people so that’s where SecretEATS came from.’
After about 9 months of living in Cape Town, I realized that I was meeting and hanging out with the same people, in the same social circle and I was craving something more. I wanted to meet people from different backgrounds, different walks of life and hear their stories.
Although he believed in the idea and people seemed quite interested, they told him, point-blank, it wouldn't work out. 'South Africa is quite a divided place; it just wasn't part of the culture for people to hang out together with strangers or different groups.’
Pushing ahead with the idea anyway, Greg got a designer and a copywriter on board to put together a website. ‘Within about a month we had our first dinner, we started getting all of this press coverage, everyone was talking about it.’
Being a traveller at heart and interested in experiencing new places, Greg naturally wanted to move on from South Africa, although he says he may still go back to live there. Greg tells me he envisages setting up SecretEATS in different cities around the world, staying only until the concept is up and running before handing it on to a local partner.
SecretEATS in Hoi An
‘In Hoi An Ancient Town and Da Nang, we’ve hosted SecretEATS in art galleries, private homes, on the beach and in the beautiful Tra Que Vegetable Garden...’ After putting together a SecretEATS, pop-up party on the highest rooftop in Hoi An as a fundraiser for the local charity, STREETS, Greg was able to see the interest and desire for these kinds of experiences in Central Vietnam and decided to go for it.
‘After the party, the first SecretEATS in Hoi An was at the chef of Mango Mango, Duc Tran’s, private home. Working with Chef Duc, we organized a delicious Sunday lunch at his house. There were 24 of us, including the Chef, seated around one long table in his outside veranda for lunch. It was very cool. One of my favourites.’
‘In South Africa, our guests are mostly people who live there and are looking for a different kind of dining experience, something a bit more social, perhaps.’
‘Most of our guests here in Hoi An are either travellers or ex-pats too, it’s a slightly different crowd but they’re looking for the same thing - a new, unique and exciting way to connect. They might be here for only a few days, weeks or even a month so we worked to adjust the concept to be available daily; guests simply book a day or two in advance.
‘My vision for SecretEATS is that it can pop up in any country, with any group of people.’
Gregory’s Top Places To Eat in Central Vietnam
As someone who has travelled all around the world bringing people together for amazing food experiences, we thought we’d quiz Gregory on the best places to dine out in Hoi An Ancient Town, Hoi An Beach and further afield in Da Nang. It’s fair to say his list is quite extensive.
Traditional Southern Vietnamese cuisine, this is one of the restaurants, owned by Hoi An celebrity chef Duc Tran. The venue is a traditional Vietnamese house that dates back hundreds of years; when Chef Duc took over the property, they converted the two homes into the restaurant. The cuisine gives you a sneak peek into the style of Southern Vietnam and the concept of shared plates, something very common in traditional Vietnamese culture. Be sure to try out their cocktails, too! My personal favourite is either the Tropical Chill or Berry Berry Good - the name speaks for itself.
If you're looking for a hidden gem and something a bit more off-the-beaten-path, this spot is simply perfect! You can simply make a booking and enjoy or you can turn your dinner into a true experience and spend some time exploring the local vegetable gardens and chatting with their head chef. Mua is all about fresh, seasonal and local ingredients and the resulting food is impeccable. Great for meat-eaters or vegans and vegetarians alike, the chef is creative, diverse and brings his years of talent cooking overseas to Hoi An. Of course, there is a great wine list to accompany dinner too. Explore this Hoi An Village Vietnamese restaurant menu or contact us to arrange your private dining experience.
Wondering what to do in Hoi An? This is a truly authentic, local experience...and, it’s absolutely delicious! Located in the food market at the end of An Hoi island, you’ll find 10 or 11 different Vietnamese food stalls open daily from early until late. They serve up traditional Vietnamese street food and it’s delicious. Personally, I recommend heading directly to Mr. Son. He and his wife are not to be missed! Sit back, relax and indulge in an extensive menu of traditional Vietnamese dishes. Some of my favourite picks at Mr. Son -- sautéed pumpkin, fried rice, and the banh xeo. Also, it’s a great place for a fresh coconut or nuoc mia (sugar cane juice).
Mix Greek Restaurant
Greek food in Hoi An? Yes, please! Especially when it's made by a lovely Greek couple who started the place a few years back. They certainly know a thing or two about great food and outstanding hospitality. Typically, we go for the Mix Platter of dips but everything I've tried here is outstanding. Get ready for big, big portions and tasty food in true Greek fashion. And, just wait for the surprise at the end. Hint - it involves chocolate, banana and a bit of crunch.
In Central Vietnam, our options for Mexican food are pretty limited. Luckily, we have Hola Taco in town and they did a terrific job representing the cuisine with a California style twist on their food. Here, the nachos are one of my favourite dishes - although, the tortilla chips are flour, not corn! It’s a unique take on the tortilla chip but I think it works! Prefer something else? Check out their bowls, burritos and don’t miss the watermelon margarita.
MOYO Beach Club
If you find yourself looking for food by Hoi An beach, MOYO can’t be beaten. Start your day with a delicious breakfast including everything from salmon & poached eggs to a scrumptious tofu scramble or one of their build your own breakfast bowls. The MOYO team is delivering fresh, healthy and delicious right at the beach. For lunch and dinner, indulge in tapas-style sharing plates or a hearty meal like their plant-based lasagna or homemade beetroot gnocchi. By far, the best spot for a great meal at the beach meat and seafood lovers, as well as if you’re on a plant-based diet.
37 Woodfired Grill
If you're a fan of steak and seafood, you can't miss this spot on the beautiful Thu Bon River. Known for grilling up delicious meats and seafood, they have a limited menu for vegetarians and vegans so I tend to stick to their amazing cocktails. If you’re a cocktail fan, this is definitely one of the places to check out while you’re in Hoi An.
Best for Vegans and Vegetarians
Nourish is one of my absolute favourite spots in Hoi An. Fresh, healthy and delicious, their food is filled with flavour and truly made with love. The owner and manager are there daily and make sure you’re enjoying yourself and the food. Everything on the menu is delicious - I’ve tried almost all of it. But, I’m partial to the Tofu scramble and the Wawu burger with mango chutney. For dessert, indulge your sweet tooth and splurge for the chocolate cake dessert...it's plant-based, gluten-free and damn delicious!
ROM - Revolution of Mushroom
This is one of my favourite places for lunch or dinner in Hoi An and if you love mushrooms, I’m sure it will quickly become one of yours, too. Most of the dishes on the menu are just yum, yum, yum but my personal favourites are the Mushroom and Tofu Claypot and the Pineapple Fried Rice. They also make a mean mojito!
By far, my favourite restaurant in town. Practically everything on the menu is incredible and it's all made fresh, right before your eyes. It's a fusion of Vietnamese and Western cuisine...and, it's 100% plant-based without sacrificing any flavour or taste.
Try out the crispy tofu (like chicken drumsticks) or the mushroom tofu patties (like mini burgers). Don't miss the fresh spring rolls or the absolute best curry in town, their thick and hearty vegetable curry. They also have some scrumptious desserts, too.
Best for Coffee
Sound of Silence
Best spot for a relaxing coffee in the morning by Hoi An beach. Period. You’ll immediately feel like you’ve been transported to a private garden oasis. Be sure to try out their orange cold brew or their delicious coconut coffee.
Fefe Coffee in Cam Ha
Get off the beaten track and discover a hidden garden in a traditional Vietnamese neighbourhood with some of the best coffee. They roast on-site and it's all so delicious. If you don't feel like making the trek, you can find their coffee being served up at 9 Grains, one of my favourite spots between Old Town and the beach.
This little spot is tucked away in a hidden alley in Old Town but worth the effort of following that pin on Google Maps to find this gem. Get the coconut coffee - it's the best in Hoi An. And, if you're vegan, ask them to just use coconut milk instead of fresh and condensed milk. You'll also need a bit of sugar syrup which they're happy to provide.
Best for Drinks
Located directly above the main Hoi An market, this wine bar offers a quiet, peaceful oasis from the bustling streets of Old Town with an extensive wine list and delicious tapas offering. Come upstairs to discover a great list of premium international wines at terrific prices, yummy snack plates and more.
200 Years in Hoi An
A hidden gem, this is somewhere you won’t want to miss on your travels in Hoi An. More than 200 years old, it's one of the oldest original buildings still standing in Hoi An and also where the film ‘The Quiet American’ starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser was filmed. Until a few years back, it remained a private home in the middle of the Old Town hustle and bustle. Now, still owned by the same family, it has been converted into a retail shop, coffee spot and secret bar!
Get ready for outstanding cocktails, delicious food and some epic views overlooking An Bang, Hoi An Vietnam Beach. The perfect spot to escape the hustle and bustle of crowded An Bang Beach, Shore Club is like a private oasis at the far left end of the village. The cocktails use premium liquors and are simply outstanding. Be sure to try the Vegetable Medley or their Patron Margarita -- two of my favourites.
Guests at The Watermark can venture out of Hoi An for an evening meal at one of Da Nang’s outstanding restaurants. Getting from Hoi An to Da Nang is affordable and comfortable in a private car which can be booked through our front desk.
This is a fancy, upscale, reservations required type spot. Totally worth it. If you don't have a booking, hang out at the wine bar outside and grab yourself a meat and cheese plate to nibble on while you wait. French cuisine by a well-known, well-respected French chef. Have a dietary restriction - don't sweat it, this is the kind of place you let them know when you make your booking and you just wait for your mind to be blown.
If you’re looking for a fancy night out on the town, check out either Le Comptoir or get dressed up and come tempt yourself with creative, inspired and delicious cuisine from this French-Vietnamese chef, Chef Anh. Experience white linen tablecloths and 5-star service, along with an extensive wine list and some inspirational plating by Chef Anh and his team.
Waffles, waffles, waffles...that's all there is to say! They have some delicious food, but you just have to try the waffles to truly experience this place.