It can be an uneasy feeling rocking up to a formal black tie dinner if you’re not in the habit of attending them. Especially if you’re not quite dressed as the official invitation has requested.
I had been invited to attend this month’s Chaine des Rotisseurs formal dinner held at one of Saigon’s finest restaurants – Le Corto – headed by well-respected local chef, Sakal Phoeung, along with Tuscan-born chef from Italian restaurant Cugini (Hanoi & Saigon), Nico Ceccomoro, pairing up with him in the kitchen for the evening.
Chaine des Rotisseurs is a culinary association with over 25,000 members dispersed throughout more than 90 countries around the world, including in Vietnam, with its headquarters based in Paris and its roots going back as far as 1248 with the establishment of a guild of “goose roasters” charged with the task of teaching members how to cook a better goose.
Almost 800 years on and many roast goose dinners later, the essence of the association remains the same – a love for fine dining and wine with a raison d’etre of bringing people together in appreciation of it.
I’ll be honest. That afternoon before the dinner, I agonised over my choice of couture, my decision painfully made after countless visits to the mirror, arm flapping and a level of dithering to rival that of Mr Bean.
Yet, there was no way I was turning down this invitation to attend what might turn out to be one of the dining experiences of the year, even if I risked breaking number six of the nine “basic rules for dinners” that diners must abide by.
Thankfully my confidence received a much needed boost after I successfully tied a full Windsor knot a couple of times before leaving home (thanks Youtube).
Furthermore, to settle any residual nerves, I caught an early cab into town where I downed a number of G&Ts at a couple of my favourite bars near the dinner venue. It was after all, World Gin Day.
Any fears of ostracism disintegrated when I was greeted inside the door of Le Corto by the Chairman of the Vietnam chapter of Chaine des Rotisseurs, Raj Taneja, suitably attired as you’d expect in a tuxedo and white bow tie, a beaming smile and looking every bit the man about town.
Adorned with an impressive ribbon denoting his title within the association, Raj, in true brotherhood spirit, promptly ensured a coupe of crisp, bubbly Syn Champagne NV came my way in a jiffy. God bless.
After a few quick sips, I made an observation that the chairman’s ribbon and its pins compared with the recently-decided world heavyweight title boxing belt, asking at the same time if I could touch it. My nerves clearly hadn’t left me.
After some brief mingling with attendees on the ground floor, which included the Consul-General of Italy, the CEO of one of Vietnam’s largest property development and hospitality groups, a rumoured past winner of Miss Vietnam, including a posse of hopefuls, hangers-on (including me), models and manicured socialites, our group was seated upstairs in readiness for our six course dinner.
First up by chef Sakal was caviar with crab meat and shellfish jelly, creatively presented in a large bowl of crushed ice and garnished with an assortment of colourful Spring flowers.
This was a refreshing chilled amuse bouche paired with a delightfully aromatic Italian Winkl sauvignon blanc (2018) that kicked the night off on just the right note.
Eating from a can wasn’t quite what I had anticipated at a US$300 (approx.) per head dinner, especially after I’d been doing it all week at home on account of my partner being away, but it was tasty, textural and a genuine pleasure to eat. The caviar divine.
So much so, towards the end I considered licking out the insides of the can, but suspecting I was already on one-strike for not wearing a tux, I thought better of it.
Shortly after, chef Sakal’s Kamichiku wagyu beef came out looking like three delicate slivers of a chocolate and coffee mousse.
Of course, it wasn’t. It was done confit with soy sauce, balsamic and coriander, and pressed into small slices with foie gras. To the side was the chef’s secret weapon, a small scoop of wasabi sorbet (not pictured) that would prove to set this dish alight.
On its own, the beef was largely benign, but when combined with a smidgeon of the divine wasabi sorbet and caramelised onion, it set our taste buds aflurry with a melodic whizz of wasabi tang, frosty sorbet freeze and velvety beef confit.
The selection of the funky Chateau de Meursault pinot beurot (2016) took this tasting to the next level and told us in no uncertain terms these guys knew what they were doing. This drop in itself was a highlight of the evening.
Our third dish for the sitting introduced the talents of chef Nico. The Tuscan had this monolinguist Googling for the English definitions of what was being served up by our attentive waitstaff.
The risotto with squid ink dish – a brave offering given the number of Vietnamese diners at the table – came with stracciatella (a burrata-like creamy cheese), bottarga (cured fish roe) and confit carabineros prawn (AKA large deep-sea Cardinal shrimp from the Mediterranean), which was impeccably paired with a 2017 San Marzano EDDA Italian chardonnay (2017), a smooth and “vanillary-caramelley” libation that had me thinking I might ditch my current gin addiction for this.
If that wasn’t enough to convince our gourmands they were experiencing some of the best dining they’ll get in Vietnam, then chef Nico put paid to that folly with his Patagonian toothfish with asparagus coulis, saffron foam and a small spherical potato cooked not once, but three times in fat. I could’ve done with a bag of these.
Washed down with a mighty fine glass of Pernand-Vergelesses Rouge Louis Latour pinot noir (2017), we were now four courses in with two more to go.
I was now more than satisfied that a dining event like this, albeit with its hefty price tag, is something any dining enthusiast should consider, not just for the rare excellent food, wine, and service, but also for the company, the networking opportunities and all-round enjoyable atmosphere.
Chef Sakal’s beautifully tender veal filet with tofu cake, baked fig (gorgeous) and veal jus now took centre stage; the only discernible grunts and groans coming from across the dining room table were those from already stuffed diners reaching for their phones again to take yet another FOMO-inducing, Insta-worthy snap for their followers.
On this occasion, the chefs gave us a chance to live out our (well, my) over-indulgent fantasies of double-fisting two glasses of world-class wine over a five-star dish, with a hefty Chateau Brown Pessac-Leognan cabernet sauvignon-merlot-petit verdot (2015) and a 1998 Elio Grasso Barolo Casa Mate (Italy) that has spoiled me for the rest of my life.
Chef Sakal wrapped up dinner with flare, literally, with his flambeed baked Alaska topped with Italian meringue and bookended the evening with another glass of the Syn Champagne VN that we had received on arrival.
And did I break any more rules throughout the course of the evening?
Let’s just say that my attempt to light my after-dinner cigar over the flames of the baked Alaska likely put me two strikes down and perhaps (unfortunately) a doubtful starter for the next instalment of the Chaine des Rotisseurs dinner in Saigon.
Chairman, forgive me?
Words by Matthew Cowan. Follow Matt on Instagram at @mattcowansaigon
All photos provided by Chaine des Rotisseurs (Vietnam)
For more information about Chaine des Rotisseurs in Vietnam, click HERE
Le Corto is at 5D Nguyen Sieu St., District 1, HCMC, Vietnam