Pardon my French, but I am not about to bullshit you.
Only recently I learnt of the Pourcel brothers — Jacques and Laurent — and their wildly successful restaurants in Europe and other far-flung, exotic locales, like Colombo, Marrakech, and Montpellier.
Shame on me.
While doing my research, I found every flowery turn of phrase extolling their successes and their restaurant’s three Michelin star-acclaim start to conjure up images in my mind of two giants of mythical proportions from the culinary world.
My expectations of the twins’ latest venture — Jardin Des Sens — in Ho Chi Minh City were building by the moment like a mid-wet season storm cell over the city.
Certainly, other publications here have gushed over apparently eye-catching culinary delights, stories unfolding with every course, and little surprises on over-sized imported plates. One even suggested that perhaps Jardin Des Sens could be one of those restaurants where “the chefs are the artists, the waiters are the curators, and you, the customer, are the spectator.”
Ooh la la.
Thanks to reviews like these, expectations inflate, much in the way the price of wine does the closer to the bottom of the list. By the way, there is a bottle of pinot noir at Jardin Des Sens — a 2009 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti — priced at VND140,000, 000 (US$6,125).
Would it be worth it?
And so I come to Jardin Des Sens trying my best to keep an open mind. Short of a lobotomy, the approach I go with is to pretend I have been living under a rock in the back blocks of Go Vap and never, ever troll the growing number of food and wine blogs getting in their reviews before me.
Already we are being encouraged to discover and we haven’t even entered the premises
We are greeted at the front gate of the villa by a smiley pair of chaps in uniform, who show us to the front door via a porch just off the street. We feel tempted to plonk ourselves down in the citrusy orange velvet lounge chairs and order our first aperitif. Already we are being encouraged to discover and we haven’t even entered the premises.
The vestibule on the ground floor is a similarly furnished waiting area with a small bar at the opposite end. My partner and I are immediately intrigued. We go about like shoppers at an IKEA store running our hands over as much as is socially acceptable and imagining how the objects would look in our house. My favourite is the two-seater lounge, designed so that two people can sit next to each other facing in opposite directions, yet they can still hold a conversation and look into each other’s eyes.
Beyond is an air-conditioned wine ‘cellar’, mostly it just looks like an expensive glass box. I imagine it is chilling that outrageously expensive bottle of pinot noir that some lucky blighter will get to taste some day. Unfortunately, tonight it won’t be me. Still, I gaze in as if I know what I am looking for.
The ambiance makes me want to whisper even though we have arrived before anybody else
Two flights of stairs extend either side of the wine cellar, leading up to the dining room on the second floor, with a capacity of close to 40 people. It is beautifully decorated with Modernist furniture — again the chairs are inviting us to sit. The ambiance makes me want to whisper even though we have arrived before anybody else.
Underfoot it is a nice change to feel the gentle spring of the parquetry floor and hear the sound of it creaking as the waiters buss plates and glasses across the dining room throughout the evening. It gets me thinking about just how much of this city is tiled.
We choose the five-course menu at VND1.995 million (approx. US$87) per person. For another VND950,000 (approx. US$41.50) per person there is the option to add on a wine pairing. Instead, we allow our waiter to recommend a glass of wine to pair with our mains. Glasses start from VND189,000 (approx. US$8.30) for a riesling.
Our mains are a choice of red mullet or chicken from Bresse, a province of France. But before that, there are three dishes to get through first — a king crab tartare with avocado, homemade spiced mayonnaise and wasabi chantilly; a fish soup revisite; and pan-fried scallops with green beans and a sliver of crispy Iberico ham. We finish the night with a souffle.
The wasabi chantilly hits first, then the basil comes bursting through
The king crab tartare indicates the trajectory our evening will take — delicately plated dishes creatively combined with produce from Vietnam. The small arrangement of herbs on top of the dish are the same as those plunged into the bowls of steaming hot pho each morning from one end of the country to the other, yet the dish tastes nothing like it. The wasabi chantilly hits first, then the basil comes bursting through.
When the pan-fried scallops come out with a green bean puree, crispy pieces of Iberico ham and a porky, foamy emulsion gently floating on top, my partner commits probably her biggest faux-pas of the evening when she dubs it a “French surf and turf.” Fortunately for us, the Pourcel brothers themselves — who are rarely in Ho Chi Minh City — don’t suddenly materialise out of thin air with rolling pins in hand poised to strike. In many respects she is right though, the tastes of the earth and sea come crashing through.
You don’t go hungry despite what you hear about some fine dining experiences
In between dishes, we are offered fresh bread and, of course, amuse-bouche, those single bite-sized hors d’oeuvre-like free ‘gapfillers’ between courses whose purpose is to offer a glimpse into the chef’s approach to cuisine as a piece of art. You don’t go hungry despite what you hear about some fine dining experiences.
Throughout the evening we are treated to dishes rooted in the tradition of French fine dining, but which pay homage to flavours familiar to the Vietnamese palate, like avocado, basil, chili, and of course, seafood, which are all in abundance here. It demonstrates the chefs’ commitment to using local, in-season produce in a way that is true to French cuisine, but at the same time makes it accessible to people not so familiar with it. The chicken and fish mains suit any palate and paired with our waiter’s thoughtful wine selection, dare I say it, “elevates” them to another level.
Jardin Des Sens proves how adaptable its chefs are in a culinary environment accustomed to diverse and intense flavours. French cuisine in comparison to Vietnamese is subtle, but there are enough bursts of flavour to provide moments of excitement, like that zip of the wasabi chantilly followed by the aromatic short burst of pepper, anise, and perhaps mint, flavours of the basil.
And the amuse-bouche — literally ‘mouth amuser’ — not only hint at what is in-store, they are conversation starters. You find yourself commenting — almost pontificating by the end — on the taste of everything, what it reminds you of, where it probably comes from, and the chef’s intentions. In a time of relentless ‘phubbing’ at restaurant dinner tables the world over, this experience forces you to put down your phone for a moment, enjoy a meal with a loved one, talk about the flavours and the art of food created by internationally acclaimed chefs. There simply aren’t too many places in Ho Chi Minh City like it.
What price can you put on that?
photos: MIKE PALUMBO
Address: 251 Dien Bien Phu Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Hours: Lunch – midday to 2pm; Dinner – 6.30pm to 10pm (last order: 9pm)
Typical Prices: Three-course VND1,595,000 (approx. US$69.80); Five-course VND1,995,000 (approx. US$87.30); Eight-course VND3,000,000 (approx. US$131.30) * prices don’t include wine pairing
Summary: High-end French fine dining in a beautiful French colonial-era villa with Modernist decor
More Info: Go to jdspourcel.com
Disclaimer: The Bureau was invited as a guest of Jardin Des Sens