Is Vietnam’s Restaurant Scene Good Enough?
As culinary contests such as the Bocuse d’Or or Vietnam’s own Golden Spoon continue to bring awareness to local cuisine and all restaurants in Vietnam, the question is begged: do restaurants in Vietnam have what it takes to stand up against the world’s greats?
When I was invited to cover an evening with some of South Vietnam’s most talented gastronomists milling over the food of revered French chef Thierry Mounon, the first thing I did is schedule a cholesterol check-up after the dinner. As I understood it, this meeting of the minds was to be the first of many conversations on the quality of Vietnam’s dining experiences, and whether or not the country is truly ready to be positioned among Southeast Asia’s Top 50 Restaurants. And that the evening’s discussions would be conducted in French. No worries - we would communicate via the rich food of La Villa French restaurant and the ever-helping hand of wines provided by the Warehouse.
Before I continue with the evening’s menu, let me give you time to pause and pick up your own glass of wine (or nine, as I ended with). There… now that should take the edge off. Let’s continue.
Over seven decedent courses, the small conference of eight revisited a particular theme of the evening: the challenges and opportunities that currently exist in Vietnam’s hotel and restaurant scene. The first point on this subject was access to quality ingredients, and was raised by more than one person. Luckily, we were sitting in the grace of Fabien Nguyen, sales manager of Classic Fine Foods. Not only could he tell us where to buy the best black truffle in Vietnam (hint: it’s through him), but he also supplies La Villa with many of their most delicious and quintessential ingredients on the menu. Included tonight was the crab and coral urchin used in the starter, a crab ravioli with bouillabaisse juice “monte”; the Brittany blue lobster as the first main dish, juicy and sumptuous along with mashed celery, orange and anise butter; the Australian Black Angus which was presented en croute with such finesse I have never before experienced; the Valrhona “coeur de Guanaja” chocolate, 80% cacao and just the right amount of bitterness as it oozed out of the lava cake; and the dizzyingly delicious cheese platter, of which you could die happily while only gazing at (trust me - I nearly did). Salivating yet? Wait, because there’s more!
“You can have a good product, but if the dish isn’t executed properly, then it matters not. Food quality is a ‘big word’,” explained Fabien as we tucked into the roasted Brittany lobster. A perfect example, this blue lobster is one of Classic Fine Foods’ imported ingredients, and is a highlight on La Villa’s menu. The lobster is line caught off the north coast of France and, through a patented method, is put to sleep in a compression chamber at 3,000 bar. As a diver, I can tell you this would be a very calm way to go. The benefit is that the meat is kept raw and separates perfectly from the shell. It’s then left up to the prowess of the chef to ensure that the meat isn’t overcooked; one of the easiest mistakes to make with such a delicate item. Luckily, Chef Thierry is the master of such French ingredients so it was roasted to perfection and paired with a gentle sauce and mash; allowing the lobster’s buttery flavour to shine. Not a single morsel was left on anyone’s plate (or throughout the evening for that matter).
It’s not that Vietnam doesn’t produce some of its own high quality ingredients, but this is a work in progress. There was much debate about the quality of organic produce coming out of Dalat, a general absence of ethically-raised meat and a serious lack of transparency in terms of raw ingredients. Lorraine Sinclair, executive chef of Sheraton Saigon Hotel & Towers commented that Vietnam does produce, “good chicken, chocolate and crab,” and was met with affirming nods around the table. Giovanni Parella, executive chef of The Reverie Saigon added that it is, “important to work with the best supplier,” but that a meal is incomplete without, “the best wine pairing and great company.” As if on cue Jean-Bernard Baudron, training and development manager of The Warehouse, chimed in to talk more about the process of wine pairing in Vietnam’s restaurants.
“You can either pair wine with food or food with wine. For the most part here it’s still the former of the two,” said Jean-Bernard hypnotizing us with a swirling glass of 2014 Bandol rose. The country’s wine industry continues to gain popularity year on year in both restaurants and corporate gifts. “Our shops can make almost all our annual budget just from sales during Tet. In general there is a growing understanding of why wine is essential to a meal, and it’s fairly easy to pair Vietnamese dishes with wine,” he continued. I would imagine that a menu like what we were eating is the kind of pairing exercise Jean-Bernard lives for, and it was obvious from the glimmer in his eyes when the 1996 Saint Emilion Grand Cru made its way around with the cheese selection. Unanimous approval of the evening’s pairing rang throughout all seven courses, endorsed by the overflowing recycling bin at the end of the evening.
There was no shortage of kitchen anecdotes throughout the meal, and I just sat back with my always full, always mouthwatering and usually French wine. Giggles graduated to outright bellows and I’m sure that Thierry’s wife Tina (also manager of La Villa) was happy we were sequestered in our own corner of the homely restaurant. Following a humbling collection of embarrassing chef stories, Patrick Gaveau, CEO of Innovo JSC, corralled the experts back on track, posing the question, “Decent food is available throughout Vietnam; great food is available here in Ho Chi Minh City, but how does this compare with what you can find in neighbouring countries?” Before we could answer, the piece de resistance was wheeled out and jaws dropped.
It was perhaps the pervasive smell of butter and pastry dough that first caught my attention, followed by the golden crust of Chef Thierry’s Boeuf en Croute that managed to take up a table of its own and required the hands-on assistance of four waiters. When carved, its medium-rare centre emulated the ruby-like colour of the 2006 Pauillac Prélude à Grand Puy Ducasse that accompanied. When Chef Thierry came out to check on us Jean Luc Scotto Di Apollonia, chef of Nine Bistro in Vung Tau, confirmed what we had all been thinking, “You deserve to be considered the best in town. No wonder you’re number three on TripAdvisor!” He then made further mention of the passion that emanated out of every dish; all immaculately presented and painstakingly prepared.
I know you’re all dying for this piece to end so you can run out and inject some foie gras directly into your veins, so let me lightly gloss over the cheese trolley by just saying that whenever you order this at La Villa you’re allowed to try as many as you like. The evening also ended on a high note of chocolate lava cake with a glass of 2013 Banyuls, M. Chapoutier, a grenache port. It was around this time that my eyes glossed over and food coma set in.
Jean Meteigner, Executive Chef of The Grand Ho Tram Strip affirmed the message of the evening, “The restaurant scene here is as good or better than what’s around.” Lorraine added, “The whole journey this evening was wonderful. It’s obvious that all the parts of the kitchen fit together like a jigsaw.” And at this you could see the elation on the faces of Thierry, Fabien and Jean-Bernard. Each piece of the supply chain played its part to a resounding success. Thierry closed the evening with a humble statement, “When we opened we had only tables, chairs and 100 white plates.” Like so many of Vietnam’s impressive eateries, look at where they are now!