The craziness of a Saturday night in District 1 is just a murmur eight floors below, as we take our seats in Acacia’s recently remodelled indoor/outdoor dining area. Gentle pockets of light illuminate cosy nooks of rattan and bamboo. Cool grey hues contrast with tropical greenery. I’m picking up a contemporary Malibu-beachside vibe. It is intimate yet casual; formal, but without the formalities.
With Acacia representing the Vietnamese branch of his Hollywood-based empire, Saigon-born, US TV celebrity and chef-to-the-stars Jack Lee has come back to Ho Chi Minh City with a boom. A whirlwind of energy, Jack is all laughs and smiles as he takes me through his modern American menu.
“Obviously I’m going to recommend everything!” he says. “But if you’re into beef… get the prime rib.”
The Signature Dish
At just VND395,000, this is a US-imported, grass-fed organic masterpiece of tenderness and flavour. Slow cooked for eight to 10 hours, served with a parcel of vegetables and creamed potato, I’ll save you the catalogue of adjectives. Just know this: it may well become as famous as his ‘hundred-dollar egg roll’.
“Right now,” says Jack, “Vietnam is one of the best places to cook — a hidden treasure. If all the chefs in the States knew, they’d be over here in a heartbeat!”
Through Acacia, Jack’s learning to fall back in love with the country he left as a child. Born in Cholon to Chinese parents, he was forced to leave at the age of nine by his then pregnant mother. “She threw me in a boat,” he recalls. “My father had just died. It was the 1980s, not the best time. Vietnam was not pretty.”
A determined Jack wound up in the States and began cooking — really well, I assume — eventually landing a spot at the California School of Culinary Arts and later the distinguished Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles. And he’s famous, too, frequently popping up on TV cooking shows like the Food Network’s Cut Throat Kitchen. “I also just made the cover of Hollywood Weekly,” he says. “High-five!”
Today, Jack’s LA-based catering company Chinoise Cuisine boasts a client list where for most, first names are all that’s required — Oprah, Priscilla, Angelina, The Sultan Of — and it was in pursuit of unadulterated Hollywood bling that his now legendary wallet-busting egg roll was born. Maine lobster, French truffles, gold leaf, no expense spared.
Thankfully, Acacia’s menu is much more affordable, though it receives just as much care and attention. Combining alcoholic reductions with Vietnamese herbs and fruits, Jack is sparking fresh life into modern classics. Ranging from grilled lamb chops and a smoky pork tenderloin roulade to seafoods, salads, soups and pastas, Jack’s menu is compact but eclectic. His foie gras with passion-fruit, dragon-fruit and kiwi (VND188,000) is a canvas of contemporary art — a rich, creamy appetiser propelled to new heights by the sharpness of the fruits. The perfectly cooked mahi-mahi (VND 295,000) looks just as splendid. Served with a soursop sauce, the subtle sweetness of the fish is given the space it deserves, while the glistening salmon roe garnish provides delicate bursts of contrasting saltiness. In short… divine.
With his own TV cooking show now on air in Vietnam, another project in the pipeline for US television, and Tinseltown’s constant beckoning call, Jack’s a hard man to pin down. Fortunately for us, his show-stopping cuisine is staying right here. — Simon Stanley
Acacia is at 149-151 Nguyen Du, Q1, Ho Chi Minh City