Scoping Saigon for where to eat fine French food in a cozy, home-like environment? La Cuisine presents a gastronomic retreat in the midst of the city center’s chaos.
On a hot summer day in Brazil in 1996 Erwann was promoted to chef at 23. He would either try and make it or fail miserably. Nearly 20 years later, the evidence speaks for itself. La Cuisine, a French restaurant near the center of Ho Chi Minh City, serves French cuisine that falls into the category of, “close your eyes and savor every bite”. Behind the scenes, Erwann is painstakingly observing, correcting and testing to see if his chefs are producing the quality he expects.
At around 6 years old, inspired by his mother’s and nanny’s cooking, Erwann designed his first themed restaurant: an eatery set in a submarine. While the idea never panned out further than a pencil drawing, his obsession with gastronomy translated into an international life of apprenticeships and perpetual mastery. In 2009, after nearly nine years working as the head chef for La Camargue, one of the city’s most famous French restaurants, Erwann decided to open his own restaurant despite many of his friends warning against it.
The eatery is now one of the top French restaurants in Saigon. Erwann has a keen ability to take elements from his childhood, his years abroad and the meals he enjoys of other notable chefs, and incorporate it into a fine French meal paired with some good wines.
White brick walls and French posters hug a cozy, two-floor interior. The space is more laid-back than the gastronomy at La Cuisine would suggest. And while the white linen only covers half the table, the chic, intimate environment pairs well with the finely prepared but nostalgia-inducing meals.
While the restaurant is packed on most days, with a more familial and colloquial air about it, on a quieter evening a more hushed atmosphere gives stray guests the chance to really focus their senses on the fare before them.
If you prefer to feel at home while you dine on top-quality restaurant food, La Cuisine presents an excellent environment in the city’s loudest and busiest district.
Speaking of familial, La Cuisine’s staff is limited, closely knit and joined with Erwann on his journey to culinary betterment. Several of his staff has worked more years with him than fingers can count. Others have come on board with little knowledge or pretention and have been built up by Erwann to the level they’re at now. As a practical chef who has built his experience through the chaos of kitchens across both hemispheres, Erwann has chosen staff that mirrors his capacity to learn and adapt.
As you can expect, service is courteous and professional, and the majority of the staff can safely give you excellent recommendations.
Erwann’s menu has some of longest titles for menu items you’ll see for french food in Saigon. The chef wants transparency, to let customers know exactly what they’re getting. A beef cheek, for example can be braised, stewed, pan-seared, broiled and so on.
The french and English menu specifies the method used to avoid misunderstanding. The braised beef cheek is cut in larger pieces and cooked for hours in a stock of jus de veau and red wine. Stewed beef cheek is cut smaller, and completely immersed in liquid during the cooking process. Asking for a medium-rare pan seared beef cheek, for example, would result in a chewy, inedible mess.
The dishes served at La Cuisine are French modern Mediterranean, and borrow French, Italian and even Japanese elements, along with elements from different regions in France, to create a sophisticated and quite detailed menu.
We sat down with Erwann to sample select dishes.
Pan-Seared Scallop on Kombu (VND 375,000):
We began with a glass of Moulin de Gassac, a relatively dry but still somewhat sweet chardonnay with a low gravity. This wine functions well as a sipper before the meal and goes great with the freshly baked bread and Erwann’s favorite salted butter, imported from Brittany.
We were presented with two dollops of pan-seared scallop resting on Japanese kelp (Kombu), covered in diced bits of oven-dried tomatoes, black olives and extra virgin olive oil. The lightly oiled vegetables and the soft, buttered scallop paired well with the dryness of the chardonnay, with the low gravity of the wine keeping the food from being overpowered by the wine.
Terrine de Foie Gras “Maison” (VND 415,000):
In the mood for foie gras? La Cuisine’s foie gras was served with Guerande rock salt, onion and fig compote, dark freshly baked multigrain toast, and some mixed greens on the side. The wine was an Allan Scott Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand.
Per our preference, we had the foie gras with the bread and the onion and fig compote, leaving the sauvignon blanc to sip afterwards along with the mixed greens. The foie gras was delicate, but not as buttery as we expected, likely due to the excellent compote and soft dark bread edging the richness of the terrine. The sweetness of the sauvignon blanc went smoothly with the lightly-dressed greens.
In the six years La Cuisine has been open, the osso bucco has never left the menu. It’s never left Erwann’s mind either. From the days his nanny used to cook the traditional recipe, to the plate set before us during our time at the French restaurant, the osso bucco has been one of the chef’s proudest and most nostalgic dishes, reminding many French customers of their childhood.
Exceptionally tender braised veal shank painted with demi-glace sits atop risotto alla Milanese, the meat soft, but not so soft that it loses its texture. A bit of creamy risotto quickly followed by some of the hot glazed veal is prone to close some eyes: childhood is just on the tip of the tongue. This one brings you back, even if you’re not well versed with French cuisine.
The paired Parallele 45 red wine unquestionably went well with the meat, but the osso bucco does not necessarily any additional elements.
The demi-glace is made in-house and comprises of oxtail, vegetables, wine, filtered water and spices, cooked for three days and two nights, a process not allowed in restaurants in France.
Trianon: Choco-Almond with Strawberry Sauce
Unfortunately this dessert was a special menu item and may not be available on the main menu at all times. If the occo bucco reflected Erwann’s childhood experiences of mouthwatering after-school dinners, the Trianon is the embodiment of childhood sweets in a refined, expertly crafted package. Chocolate, almonds, hazelnuts, and a layer of feuilletine produce a creamy fudge that is topped with popping sugar. Leave the fudge on your tongue and allow the sugar to pop under the roof of your mouth – it’s another eye-closer, and the Nutella-like fudge makes this an addictive treat.
The majority of reviews on TripAdvisor are five bubbles, with everything from service to food to the 79-item wine list lauded and relished. People comment the prices are high for Saigon but very reasonable when compared to French restaurants abroad. People seem to unanimously enjoy the cozy home setting.