A Dinner with Culinary Masters

food - Saigon/HCMC: Jan. 17, 2017

We all know that Romeo and Juliet, although set in Verona, was written by the very British William Shakespeare. The Romeo & Juliet we’re talking about, however, couldn’t be more Italian.

This restaurant, taking the name of the famous lovelorn duo, is the setting for another great romance, but this one is set entirely on the plate. Nestled underneath the 5-star Reverie Hotel (Level B1, 57-69F Dong Khoi Street, District 1), Romeo & Juliet makes the most of its auspicious location.

Romeo and juliet

This fact was certainly driven home for some of the most well-known chefs and gastronomes in Saigon, who were lucky enough to experience these dishes first-hand at #iAMHCMC’s second Dinner de Chef, an ambitious and delicious project sussing out the best culinary delights Ho Chi Minh City has to offer.

Old Flavours, New Twists

At Romeo & Juliet, it’s obvious that taste is not the only sense Executive Chef Giovanni Parrella’s team is concerned about. Here it was about immersing all your senses, from the lounge and the elegant Venetian-inspired interiors, to the heavenly aromas emanating from every dish. Case in point: the cortoccio. Made with squid ink tagliolini and the freshest seafood at the local markets, the pasta was cooked al dente and mixed with the seafood in individual paper bags. After 10 minutes in the oven, the diners opened their bags and were greeted with the heavenly aromas and tastes of the sea.

While the cortoccio was a traditional representation from Italy, Chef Giovanni is something of a renegade. One of his goals when he opened Romeo & Juliet was not only to make beautiful Italian food, but to rethink it. He quickly learned that this wouldn’t be the easiest thing to do in Saigon. For Chef Giovanni, this lesson was learned with the ossobuco, the dinner’s fourth course. He told his guests, “I chose this dish in particular because I got a lot of complaints about it [in the restaurant]. I got so many, I had to take it off the menu.” When he presented his take on the ossobuco – traditionally a slow-cooked beef shank served on the bone – the differences were immediately obvious. The beef here was shredded, and the bone marrow was carefully extracted and crusted with breadcrumbs. That night the new take on the old Northern Italian dish was well received, so much so that he’s now considering putting it back on the regular menu. I sincerely hope he does so.

 

And now the tiramisu, a dish made right at the table. Donald Berger, the Chef Patron of Don’s Bistro in Hanoi (16 Lane 27 Xuan Dieu, Tay Ho, Hanoi) in particular was enthralled by the concept: “I have tiramisu in my restaurant, and I chill it for three hours. This one was completely novel. I would have never thought of it!” To start, the chef mixed a pasteurised egg (no risk of salmonella here) with a few other magic ingredients in a CO2 cartridge – a siphon, if you want to get technical – to make the mascarpone mousse. Add the espresso-drenched lady fingers and a sprinkling of locally sourced cocoa powder, and you’ve got yourself a beautiful dessert.

Romeo & Juliet restaurant

The star of the show, however, was undoubtedly the second course: the onion soup. Although it sounds humble, rest assured, this was no ordinary onion soup – it came straight from the memories of Chef Giovanni, who reminisced, “I remember it from the wintertime, when I would go to my grandmother’s house. She had this big pan with crushed charcoal that she used to heat the house. Grandma would take the onion wrapped with aluminum foil and toss it in the ash and leave it there all night.” In the morning, Grandma Parrella would peel off the aluminum foil, core the cooked onion, and use the insides to make the onion soup. Once the soup was ready, she would use the outer onion as the soup bowl.

 

And this is exactly what Chef Giovanni did for Dinner de Chef. Of course, he did update it: to give it that high-class touch, Chef Giovanni served this masterpiece on a bed of rock salt and accompanied it with a slice of 24-month aged Parma ham. But don’t get your hopes up when you visit Romeo & Juliet yourself: this is a dish Chef Giovanni served specially for these lucky diners.

Pairs that Belong Together

While this food was extraordinary, not to discuss the wine would be like leaving out Juliet in Shakespeare’s ultimate love story. For dishes as exquisite as these, only a true expert could be trusted with the job. Good thing Mirko Traini, sommelier extraordinaire from Rubyred (206 Nguyen Van Huong, D2), was up to the challenge. For example, to best suit the delicate onion soup, he chose the Ciù Ciù Merlettaie Offida D.O.C.G. Pecorino. Grown on the slopes of Piceno Apennines, not far from where Mirko himself grew up (“I’m particularly proud of it,” he beamed), this Pecorino was fermented in medium-sized barrels and aged for six months. It proved soft, fresh and completely agreeable. With only 5,000 units of the wine produced a year, this was truly a special moment of the night.

The sparkling jewel of the dinner was, fittingly, a sparkling wine, the 2010 Bellavista Alma Gran Cuvee Franciacorta Rose. Even with a table full of gourmands, this wine surprised all. Anna Barcela, the Director of Food and Beverage of the Reverie Saigon, couldn’t believe the wine was Italian. “It tasted like a French champagne to me,” she gushed. “I was so surprised. I love champagne; I drink it all the time. I actually ordered six bottles of it from my wine supplier after the dinner.” There’s a good reason why it’s so similar to champagne: Bellavista uses the method of traditional champagne preparation, but with Italian grapes. With a creamy, almost crunchy sensation that embraces hints of sweet, ripe fruit, meringue, pastries and candied citrus peel, it made for a good start to the dinner.

Change Makers

The conversation was just as scintillating as the dishes. Among the myriad topics discussed, everyone agreed that Vietnam, and especially Saigon, was in a period of deep culinary change. Chef Giovanni said he felt this change intensely. “When we opened in 2014, we went through a difficult time,” he told everyone. “Everybody only knew pizza and pasta. We started educating people.” Since then, he’s seen his business at Romeo & Juliet increase 30-fold. Donald Berger, who has lived and worked in Vietnam for 17 years, agreed. “The culinary scene has changed an awful lot. There’s more quality now, more ingredients. Vietnamese customers are more accepting, and they’re quite sophisticated,” he mused. When asked what changes he expected to see in the future, he responded, “Probably a lean towards organic and sustainable food. You’re starting to see a lot of that now, but not much. You’ll probably see that in the future, especially when it comes to beef and seafood.” 

But the question remains: in a country that has valued traditional styles of cooking for so long, is it possible that the restaurant industry is moving too fast? The diners at Dinner de Chef, for their part, remain optimistic. Patrick Gaveau, the CEO of Innovo JSC, went further. “It’s important for chefs to go to dinners like these, too,” he said. “When a chef goes to a restaurant, he goes there with a purpose. He goes there to discover something. Because a chef needs to analyse everything to see if there’s something he can learn. That’s the job of the chef.” In Vietnam, whose restaurant scene has undergone tremendous change very quickly, chefs and patrons are learning from each other. However, if the future of Saigon’s restaurant scene includes more places like Romeo & Juliet, it has some exciting meals in store.

Contact information:

Address: Romeo & Juliet Italian Restaurant, Level B1, 57 - 69F Dong Khoi, D1

Phone: +84 28 3823 6688

Dress code: smart casual or business attire. No children under 12.