Can you create a dish that is a work of art? That’s the challenge we gave to seven chefs in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Here’s what they produced. Words by Siân Kavanagh. Photos by Kyle Phanroy and Julie Vola
Food is not just about taste and nourishment, it’s about art as well. For some reason, a well-presented dish just tastes that much better. As they say, we eat with our eyes as much as we do with our mouths.
So, in a testament to those chefs who spend years dedicating their lives to manipulating food, we are using our creative issue to showcase the talents of those artists who are regularly overlooked, hidden away in the kitchen.
So feast your eyes on the edible creations of these seven Vietnam-based chefs, and don’t expect to finish this article without a rumbling tummy.
La Badiane, Hanoi
The Chef: Ben Rascalou
The Dish: Half-cooked red tuna marinated in wasabi and thyme, candied lime, arugula salad with ginger rougaille sauce and parmesan biscuit
This delicate tuna dish, plated with an eye for detail and intricacy, creates a visual treat for the eyes with its beautiful colours. Upon the first bite, the flavours and textures combine to perfection with a beautiful balanced soft tuna and the crunch of the parmesan biscuit.
Says the chef, Ben Rascalou, “The difficult part is to research the products that are available in Vietnam, find the most interesting flavour of each ingredients, and the way to fuse the flavours together.”
Ben’s fusion works in the contrasting colours and the symmetry he plates up, but also in the food he has selected to use: tuna from Vietnam, wasabi from Japan, thyme from France, and rougaille from La Reunion.
This is a dish that requires patience — the preparation of the tuna and candied lime zests starts 24 hours in advance. Yet the hard work has definitely paid off here. “This is a dish that you must first eat with your eyes,” says Ben. “Only then do you taste the combination of flavours and originality.”
L’Olivier, Sofitel Plaza, Ho Chi Minh City
The Chef: Sakal Phoeung
The Dish: Marinated salmon, coriander, foie gras, scallops, crouton, wasabi sorbet, gold leaf, balsamic reduction, soy sauce
Chef Sakal’s marinated salmon dish is a sight to behold, starting with the intricate stacking of the crouton, salmon, foie gras, scallops and wasabi down to the gold leaf and coriander neatly positioned with the precision of a perfectionist.
This soft-spoken chef lets the food speak for itself, and that it does. Decorated and intricate, it is a piece of art. Says Sakal, “The combination of ingredients and textures are the luxury of the dish; it has been constructed for you to eat with your eyes.”
Beautiful to look at, the dish is also a delicacy of tender salmon which pairs naturally with the wasabi.
“You must always respect the ingredients you are working with in order to find the perfect balance,” says Sakal, “especially when working with a fusion of ingredients.”
The Chef: Shahar Lubin
The Dish: Eggplant nom on marinated Vietnamese luffa, open spring rolls with tofu-parsley crème, poached shrimp, served with sweet carrot oil
Shahar Lubin doesn’t shy away from creating complex dishes with rich flavour profiles, something he owes to his culinary history and his understanding of how to manipulate ingredients and flavours outside of their stereotypical and cultural roots.
This playful plate intrigued the palate and tickled the senses — serving up the eggplant nom upon a luffa, a vegetable normally reserved for the shower and not the dining room, definitely added a layer of fun to this dish. The eggplant itself is easy to devour, but hard to put together as you need to devote a couple of hours to cut, brine and fry the vegetable — but the end result is delicious.
“Something I find interesting about Vietnamese food is how close its flavours are to Middle Eastern ones,” says Shahar. “It might not occur at first, but look at the flavour profile — citrus, fresh herbs, nuts, fresh raw and lightly cooked veg.”
The use of the soft parsley crème with the crunch of the twice-fried spring roll wrappers creates a gorgeous sensation in the mouth, and is balanced by the intensity of the carrot oil. The choice to lightly cook the shrimp and leave its natural flavours to shine among the other ingredients means that you get to experience the gentle flavours on the plate complementing each other.
“While there’s some complex work behind the scenes,” says Shahar, “I want the dish to come off as friendly and as food. Pretty, but not precious.”
The Deck, Ho Chi Minh City
The Chef: Adrian Scott
The Dish: Fillet of beef wrapped in nori seaweed, seared scallops, yuzu truffle soy foam, beetroot wasabi purée, parmesan and sesame crisp
This 1980s American classic has been given a makeover by Adrian Scott aka Scotty at the Deck — surf and turf has rarely tasted so good. A wonderfully cooked fillet of beef wrapped in nori seaweed creates a unique base for this fantastic dish. The seaweed adds a stereotypically Asian flavour and works wonders at propelling it into the 21st century. The surf element is encapsulated in the use of scallops, seared gently to a delightful tenderness.
“Each component benefits the overall dish,” says Scotty. “The meal itself is a modern twist on an old-school classic revamped with added colour and depth of flavour.”
The yuzu truffle foam works as a great addition to the combination of flavours, a wonderful companion to the wasabi beetroot purée. One bite including all elements was a joy for the taste buds, the salt and crunch of the Parmesan and sesame crisp balanced against the delicately textured beef and scallops with the light heat from the wasabi.
French Grill, JW Marriott, Hanoi
The Chef: Raphael Szurek
The Dish: Chestnut financier combined with fresh goat cheese from Detrang farm, an apple sphere, pear coulis, chestnut mousse and caramel
One bite into this dessert and you could easily forget that you’re in Hanoi. Immediately transporting you to France through the sensations in your mouth, this dessert uses handmade and locally sourced produce from Ba Vi, the dairy-producing area close to the capital.
“We want to offer a unique experience to our customers, dishes with ‘stories’ that they will take away with them as great memories,” says its creator, Raphael Szurek.
When you think of the separate components, you may not immediately picture them together as a dessert, but Raphael has managed to expertly combine them into a beautifully-sized portion, with the dancing flavours in your mouth, including a gelatin ball filled with liquefied apple and chestnut cream.
Says Raphael: “Good ingredients speak for themselves and the combination of different tastes and textures create a great dish — all the components need to be enjoyed together.”
The base of the goat’s cheese accompanies the nuttiness of the chestnuts and the acidities of the apple and pear, with the textural balance between the smooth and creamy cheese created by the crunch of the caramel.
Racha Room, Ho Chi Minh City
The Chef:Chris Donnelan
The Dish:Textured berries, ice cream and yoghurt, with chili cherry jelly and coconut crisp
Every good meal should end with an excellent dessert, and this dessert created by Racha Room’s Chris Donnelan is just a vision in cherry red, featuring four different textures of cherry and other berries. These include: a chilli-cherry jelly; cherry, orange and vanilla syrup; honey poached cherries and raspberries; as well as fresh berries adorning the plate.
“This dish is inspired by my childhood in Melbourne,” says Chris. “We would always have ice cream, yoghurt and poached cherries. It was always delicious.”
This classic combination of sweet fruits is upgraded with the use of liquid nitrogen and fresh fruit to create a frozen crunch. The candied orange and lime zests, along with the smooth sweetness of the ice cream together with the hint of spice from the cherry creates a delicious explosion in the mouth.
“You’re meant to have a little bit of everything in one bite with this dish, to get a real taste of it,” explains Chris.
It was a challenge to share this dish with our photographer. It was so delicious I could have had it all to myself. A lovely plate to look at, constructed before us with a careful eye for detail, this dessert was also playful and elegant in its use of ingredients.
Don’s Tay Ho, Hanoi
The Chef: Donald Berger
The Dish: Maryland crab cake with sesame jicama tower, calamansi dressing, beet jus
When I first heard we were having crab cake from well-known chef and restaurateur, Donald Berger, I knew I was in for a treat, but my mind had trouble associating crab cakes with edible art. How wrong I was.
Donald’s pan-fried crab cake is a spectacle to behold. Packed with flavour and a delicate spice, the beet jus adorns the plate as though it was decorated by Jackson Pollock himself.
“Crab cakes are a classic delightful dish,” says Donald. “They are made even better by a tiny splash of Vietnamese fish sauce for what a friend of mine refers to as total ‘ngon-ness’!”
Indeed, Donald certainly brought the ‘ngon-ness’ to this creation, with the beautifully constructed sesame jicama tower that provided a fresh crunch to complement the bites of crab. The cake was gently fried to create a crisp outside while maintain a succulent juiciness inside.