June has turned out to be another massive month at The Bureau for eating and drinking. I know because I feel like my waist is about to erupt into a larger size, which has, hitherto, been kept at bay by a fairly regimented morning swim routine.
But eventually something has to give.
The latest influence Chef Franklin has had on my expanding girth is his Perfect Pairings dinner he hosted at NHAU NHAU on June 12.
Instead of pairing his increasingly famous modern takes on iconic Vietnamese dishes with cocktails, this time it was with wine, where he gained the help of his old pal, Chris Thompson, editor-at-large for Harper’s Bazaar Vietnam and perhaps the biggest wine geek of them all in Vietnam, if not, Southeast Asia.
Chris is responsible for many of us remaining sozzled most days of the week with the amazing wines he distributes throughout Vietnam and the region.
On this particular evening, the gentlemen also enlisted the expertise of sommelier, Nguyen Thanh Dung, who knows as much about wine as anyone I’ve come across in Vietnam, to ensure the wines paired to a tee with the delights Chef Franklin slung our way.
I had a fair idea what I was in for this evening from the man who feels just as at home guzzling bia hoi on a red plastic chair in a corner quan an as he is quaffing pinot noir with truffles at a posh black tie event.
I noticed a couple of his dishes on the menu that I’d eaten before, like the imperial rolls, crispy bite-sized spring roll numbers, deep-fried in piping hot oil northern-style and usually served up with a small medley of fragrant herbs; just the right size so you can squeeze together a leaf and a roll between thumb and forefinger and drop it straight in with one bite.
The other one was his banh xeo taco that tastes just like, well, banh xeo and a taco.
You haven’t eaten Vietnamese food if you haven’t had banh xeo, often quite loosely described as Vietnam’s savoury answer to a pancake, made with a battery concoction of rice flour (banh), stuffed with beans, pork, shrimp, onions and herbs, then sizzled (xeo) in a wok and served with a side of lettuce, basil and mint, and eaten with your hands.
As usual they were ngon as they say in Vietnamese – delicious.
But when the lid popped off a small blue and white ceramic pot before me in a billowy plume of dry ice revealing one sole quail egg and some salmon roe glistening back at me on a bed of straw resembling a small nest like you might see high up in a tree, I smiled and had a chuckle to myself, because this was quintessential Chef Franklin at play.
He surprised with the egg’s smokiness, but most of all it was as fun as it was tasty and juiced me up for what was in store next.
Which was a caviar chao, Chef Franklin’s dish of extremes. Chao is affordable for everyone, while caviar typically is not.
Chao, or congee, even porridge as it might be known elsewhere, is a slurry of cooked white rice often with pieces of fish or chicken, perhaps some ginger and a splash of soy sauce, served up in a bowl and usually given to someone with the flu craving warmth and sustenance but something light in flavour that won’t make them vomit.
The Western equivalent might be a chicken soup with a bread roll or even macaroni in the bottom.
But this chao was no ordinary chao picked up on the street corner on the way home. No, this one resembled something closer to eggs en cocotte perhaps, with a medium poached egg sunny side up, some puffed rice that looked like Rice Bubbles (great texture) and a teaspoon-sized glob of local Caspiar black caviar.
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New on the menu: Caviar & Congee This creamy rice porridge is cooked with sturgeon, stirred in with rich nutritious egg yolk and topped off with a heafty spoon of caviar. It just doesn’t get more comforting than this! Món mới trên menu: Caviar & Congee Cháo trắng được nấu với cá tầm, thêm lòng đỏ trứng giàu dinh dưỡng cùng 1 muỗng đầy trứng cá tầm cao cấp. Một tô cháo đầy hương vị dễ ăn sẽ “nhấc bổng” tinh thần một ngày của bạn lên nhiều lắm đấy! #BestRestaurant #BanhMiAwards #anansaigon #newvietnamese #moivietnamesecuisine #modernvietnamese #letsnhaunhau #phobar #khongsaykhongve #saigonnightlife #HomeOfThe100 #BanhMi100 #Pho100
Served up in a white bowl and garnished with flowers in-season, it looked nothing like regular chao but amazingly tasted a lot like it, although the presence of the black caviar afforded it a touch of extravagance.
There was a flower crab served up in its hollowed out shell on a bed of rock salt, inside was a zesty mix of crab meat, vegetables and herbs that paired well with a fruity drop of 2015 Marcel Deiss Alsace.
After which a buffalo carpaccio with a raw egg and delightfully topped with a “dance” of colourful flowers and herbs presumably from Dalat (Chef Franklin’s birthplace and where he draws much of his inspiration from) appeared before one of the most peculiar offerings I’ve come across in Vietnam, two soup spoons of molecular pho.
Without getting into the chemistry of which I know nothing about, they were two glycerine-like sacks that when popped in the mouth, released a gush of the undeniable flavours of pho ga (chicken noodle soup) in one hit, or as Chef Franklin says, “The taste of Vietnam in one mouthful.”
Before our equally as playful broken lime and cotton candy dessert, the last dish up was Anan’s pho dac biet (specialty pho), a rich, meaty broth with noodles, a few slivers of wagyu beef and a section of bone sliced in half lengthways rammed with juicy, fatty bone marrow – heart palpitations in a bowl.
At a price of VND1,800,000 (approx. US$77) per head, Peter’s Perfect Pairings offered unparalleled insight into how the man operates, along with a front row seat to his ongoing quest to change perceptions of Vietnamese food as being simply “cheap and good”.
Now, back to the swim training to burn it all off.
Words & Photos by Matthew Cowan. Follow Matt on Instagram at @mattcowansaigon
Anan Saigon & NHAU NHAU are at 89 Ton That Dam St., District 1, HCMC, Vietnam