Chef Thierry, 37, first entered the Michelin-star arena in 2003, when he was hired by famed chef Christian Etienne, at a restaurant of the same name in Avignon, a commune in Southern France. The next destination was a Michelin restaurant in London. And then back to France, on to Bora Bora, and ultimately to Vietnam in 2008, where he worked on the 5-star luxury property Princess d’Annam for two years for the resort’s opening.
In 2010 he arrived in Ho Chi Minh City and decided to open La Villa with his wife, Mrs. Tina Trang Pham. Thierry wanted to craft an experience that imbued locals with a sense of gastronomic awe. In fact, he wished to recreate the feelings of a particular encounter he had when he was young. He recounted the story to us.
On a murky, grey day in France a young Thierry entered, for the first time in his life, a Chinese restaurant. (Actually, it was Vietnamese, as was the staff, like most “Chinese” restaurants around France at the time.) Upon setting his eyes on the oriental surroundings, he was struck with a sense of curiosity and wonder. The space was exotic and brightly lit, there was a woman singing in Vietnamese on the speaker. It was like nothing he’d ever seen before.
It was this experience, among others, that began his 17-year culinary career.
Sitting across from us, Thierry solemnly announced there is no onion soup served at La Villa. Onion soup is bistro food. Academic, by the book, cliché and what people expect when they go to a French eatery.
Thierry is not in the habit of doing what people expect.
“I am an onion soup lover, and would be most happy with some in a Paris bistro. But for [La Villa], it’s not what we want to introduce to our guests,” he says.
“I don’t like the word ‘traditional’.” True “tradition” takes the form of traditional family meals, prepared in ways unique to that family. Now the word has come to define textbook staples in French cuisine – just as a hot dog is “traditional” American food, or a spring roll is “traditional” Chinese food.
Thierry rotated one of the wine glasses so the Riedel logo was visible. He went on: true fine dining is the white linen, the glasses, the feeling that the customer is safe and fully enjoying the experience. It’s respecting the ingredients and sharing a moment. “We work for money, of course. But we also want to bring our culture, our creativity.”
Like Thierry said, the environment feels safe. He lives on the second floor with his family, which probably contributes to the homey feeling you get as you wait for your food.
The sunlit pool outside the window, the French art-deco, the Victorian artwork, lush curtains, leather chairs, beautiful wine glasses and, of course, the white linen all create the appropriate fine dining milieu, but they don’t feel overly stiff or formal.
Light jazz quietly wavers in the softly lit space, the wait staff attentive, disciplined, anticipating customer needs in a corner, while Thierry conducts voodoo in his kitchen.
Most of everything, down to the fine details, has been meticulously chosen. Thierry reminisces walking around the market for hours, trying to find the right light bulbs for the pool. The effort put into detail, the homey ambiance, the fine dining environs all merge to form a fervent question: what’s coming next?
It’s been an uphill battle molding a proper fine dining team. While his wife adapted quickly to the gastronomic scene, Thierry admits the difficulty of hiring a long-term wait staff. In the beginning, they walked out the door as quickly as they came in. It’s quite frustrating when someone you’ve been training for a year suddenly goes, he remarks.
But some stayed, and Thierry has since taught them everything he knows about Michelin-quality service, products and the passion of customer service.
The workers at La Villa may not yet possess the knowledge of elite wait staff in restaurants around Paris or London, but they’re more than proficient, and you can see they care about giving you the experience Thierry envisions. They are prompt, polite and respectful of the food they serve and the wine they pour.
Thierry aims to incorporate the politeness of the culture with the discipline of Michelin servers abroad, taking positives from both sides.
Nearly all the ingredients are imported from France. The food speaks for itself – of precision, of love, of obsessive attention. You begin to understand what "respecting the ingredients" really entails.
Here's a breakdown of our meal at La Villa, for further clarification:
Canapés (Bite-size food received prior to lunch or dinner)
We received a plate of four petite portions consisting of a seafood gougeres, candied baby tomatoes, veloute and zucchini with mayonnaise and red caviar.
The gougere was unassuming in appearance – a simple breaded sphere, a puff pastry consisting of flour, milk and butter. Resting inside was seafood chowder: thick, pleasantly warm and with just a hint of sweetness.
The candied baby tomatoes were ensconced in a sweet, thin caramelized layer, and were slightly acidic on the inside.
The conical glasses with the pinkish liquid were the veloute. With the consistency of a puree, the soup was perfectly spiced, a smidgen of oil adding to a more full-bodied, velvety mouthfeel.
The bite-size zucchini piece worked hand-in-hand with the mayonnaise and red caviar. You could tell this went through some experimentation before the three unlikely elements were paired.
We were presented a selection of six homemade breads to choose from. Expect a brittle crust and a warm, pillowy inside lightly flavored with its respective ingredient (such as onion or olive).
Amuse Bouche (a small bite that prepares your palate for lunch or dinner)
Croquette d’escargot is essentially a breaded ball with beurre persille – butter parsley sauce – and bits of snail inside. A glass of fruity Nicolas Feuillatte white wine was served with the croquette.
Traditionally, whole snail is usually eaten with gobs of persille sauce to mask the tepid taste. The croquette might be somewhat strange to those who haven’t appreciated escargot in its original form before, but it deserves a place in your gastronomic itinerary for its unique interpretation.
We were poured a glass of Soleil Gascon with one of France’s most desired indulgences: foie gras terrine. The duck liver is placed alongside some unsweetened toasted brioche (a pastry-like bread), Muscat-poached figs and salted honey caramel sauce.
Europeans and Americans who have tried pate in all its fatty forms will find foie gras a delicacy one can quickly grow to appreciate. Those hailing from Asiatic countries may find the initial funk and rich, creamy taste somewhat peculiar (the most common use of pate in Vietnam being a spread for banh mi).
Thierry’s foie gras terrine (terrine is coarsely chopped meat – in this case pork – with added fat) has notes of nutty caramel that goes well with the white wine, which is semi-sweet and on the stronger side at 11.5%, cutting the sharp taste of the foie gras.
We recommend asking for a bit more brioche as the block of spread you get is substantial. Top the bread with a good deal of foie gras, a poached fig and some salad – the spread by itself may be too buttery to eat alone, like eating luxury Nutella from the jar by the spoonful.
The waiter poured us some Yulamba Unwooded Chardonnay, a strong Australian white wine with notes of tropical fruit.
Before us, Ms. Tina set a large translucent plate, in the center a gorgeous display of roasted Canadian lobster amidst a celestial splatter of orange butter, some orange slices and a single star of anise. Beneath the lobster were two small mounds of grilled shredded vegetables.
Thierry uses a low flame for most of his food, and you can tell the difference with the roasted lobster. Unlike a coastal lobster prepared in, say, the U.S. state of Maine, which although exceptionally tasty (some of the best in the country), is ultimately shallow when compared to its gastronomic counterpart.
The lobster was flavorful, with a deep, permeating grilled flavor that seeped into the soft, faintly chewy inside. There was an absence of the mild seafood-funk usually accompanying crustaceans. Just the right amount of orange butter was provided to dab, and a few strips of salted grilled vegetables atop some lobster completed the mouthful, the chardonnay sharply cutting the salty aftertaste.
Afterwards, the orange slices provided a soft, complimentary sweetness to the intense savor.
Main course #2
For our second main course we were presented with pan-fried medium rare duck breast, with duck blood sauce and carrot mousseline. The penultimate wine pairing was a 2011 Cuvee Prestige from Domaine des Graves d'Ardonneau, a bold, sweet Bordeaux reminiscent of a heavy desert.
The duck was tender, the inside sufficiently crimson, with an absence of the fibrous, chewy texture that often goes hand-in-hand with the bird. The salted fat around the edges paired well with the two sauces and the Bordeaux, the combination of which left a warm, sweet, meaty aftertaste on our palate.
Prepare yourself for a waft of pungent aromas from the cheese tray. The cheeses are served with homemade jams, and the variety can be a bit overwhelming. We recommend you ask Chef Thierry or Ms. Tina for suggestions. We tried the brie, camembert and Brillat-Savarin for their soft, creamy feel and accessible mildness. If you have wine left over from previous meals, keep it around for some pairing experiments.
What does a desert on the caliber of a Michelin-quality restaurant taste like?
For one, it would be a shame if you didn’t have a decent port wine to go along with your seminal treat. We were given a Porto Ramos Pinto with our chocolate and red fruit sphere.
If a sphere of chocolate sounds mysteriously sensuous, it most certainly is.
Inside the edible shell lay a medley of chocolate varying in temperature and viscosity. The conjunction of warm and cold, thick and soft chocolate and sweet fresh fruit pieces – with chocolate syrup circling the sphere like some gastronomic planetary ring – created a resonant, melting sensation on the palate that, when paired with the port, produced an indulgent, layered savor.
Mignardises (small confectionaries)
Although we felt sufficiently full at this point, the thyme tea helped our digestion enough to make room for the final set of confectionaries: a lemon macaroon, a canale, a sectioned mango and white chocolate entremet, an orangette and an orangecello granita (shaved ice flavored with orangecello) with basil.
Overall, the course surpassed our expectations. In fact, it completely subverted any notion we had and instead hit us with a gastronomic experience not seen often in Vietnam.
TripAdvisor gives La Villa 4.5 bubbles with over 500 reviews. The latest four pages of reviews have people unanimously praising the food, service and atmosphere. A few comments here and there mention the high price, but not in a negative way – in other words, it’s more than worth it for them. Some comments mention the expensive wine list, but overall reviewers say the quality of the food is on par – and up to half the price – of Michelin restaurants in London and Paris.