When you get invited to dinner hosted by San Marzano Wines, with internationally renowned celebrity Chef Luke Nguyen, you immediately say sì, certo! and wave your hands with your best Italian impression.

I arrive at R&J Italian Lounge & Restaurant and am welcomed by Nguyen Thanh Dung, award winning sommelier and current Riedel Brand Director at Malthop Company. 

At this point, I wouldn’t have known from her bubbly greeting that she along with Luke and an Italian film crew had just landed a few hours earlier after a gruelling five-day tour of Halong Bay, Sapa, Hue and now, Saigon for the No Menu – Vietnam grand finale. 

No Menu represents the opportunity to showcase where San Marzano wine is produced. 

Dung tells me that this event started in 2015 when chefs from all over the world were invited to experience the wine, produce and terrain of Puglia, Italy, and then collaborate on a menu in just a few hours. 

This year, Luke was invited.

Cantine San Marzano was founded in 1962 as a small cooperative of 19 winemakers. 

San Marzano has a medium sized property of around 1,200 hectares and has, over the years, become one of the largest cooperatives in Puglia with a modern bottling plant producing more than 15 million bottles per year, exporting to 70 countries. 

It’s a luxury brand that has earned the respect of Michelin star chefs worldwide.

Tonight’s wine and dinner pairing was concocted out of Luke’s experience travelling in Puglia and Vietnam. It is a one of a kind event, promising “no plan, no recipes, but full of flavours and emotions.” 

The concept is personal and ephemeral. 

Guided only with a handwritten outline penned just a few hours earlier, Luke is collaborating with R&J’s Chef Enrico De Martino and his team to bring this marriage of culture, tastes and techniques alive, paired with some of the world’s best wines.

“It’s gonna be a whole new experience for me,” Luke explains to me during a break in his preparations for the evening. “I still have this very vivid memory of Puglia, and the flavours of the wine, and the produce through this area. And so I return back to Vietnam and travelling with the crew and showing them this wonderful country.”

I find myself seated at a table with Maria Cavallo, a third generation family winemaker at Cantine San Marzano, along with Angelo Cotugno, San Marzano’s export manager, and the Italian film crew that has been ghosting Luke this past week. Some representatives from local media outlets are seated with us, too.

My Italian acquaintances can’t stop talking about their Vietnam tour, the wonderful people, landscape and food they experienced, their collaboration with Luke and, of course, about San Marzano, a small village in the centre of the Primitivo di Manduria DOC region, a strip of land kissed by the two seas of Salento – the Ionian and the Adriatic.

With Luke’s own stories of Puglia earlier, I feel like I am a stranger stuck in the middle of a family reunion. I start to feel left out because I’ve never been there.

Thankfully the EDDA Bianco Salento I.G.P. Vintage 2017 arrives and I’m better able to visualise the stories in my head – the green olive trees, blue waters and the white drywalls of Puglia.

The vanilla hints and fruity dew drops coupled with the ease in which Italians in general make you feel as if you are family at the dinner table reset the tone of the evening. 

“It’s my favourite tonight, it means woman in Italian,” Maria explains as she writes down the word ‘lei’ (Italian for she) on my notepad. 

We go from strangers to distant relatives in a second.

We pair the Chardonnay with a typical Italian dish called Mantecato with white fish from Mui Ne, caviar, butterfly pea flower, colatura fish sauce also from Mui Ne, green mango from the Mekong and pickled vegetables. 

The fresh and mellow flavours of the wine calm the burst of flavours from the starter, ending each bite in a restful ease. My glass empties before I scoop the last spritz of colatura off my plate

For the entree, we drink the M Merlot Salento Limited Edition Vintage 2016 which is served with ravioli made with Vietnamese egg pastry (similar to Vietnamese hoanh thanh) stuffed with Australian lamb in a saffron broth, clear consommé, topped with a 15-month aged parmesan crisp. 

The clean light aromatic broth with ginger is warm creating a contrast with the merlot’s full-bodied silkiness.

Meanwhile, Angelo offers an insight into southern Italy’s wines. 

“The taste is easy to understand – body structure, fruitiness, alcohol, the main competitive advantage of the south of Italy, is we produce wines ready to drink,” he says enthusiastically with businessman-like swagger. 

Such was the F Negro Amaro Salento I.G.P.Vintage 2015 that came next, with its long lasting velvety cloth-like texture running down my insides. Too dramatic? 

I think not, compared to the entrance Luke makes rolling a trolley with our middle course of free-range black pig from Sapa in a sweet and sour sauce, marinated with mac khien mountain pepper and Dalat organic honey. 

It’s presented on hot stones sprayed with Sambuca. Luke carves it up with his grandmother’s sewing scissors and hands me a plate. The personal touch shows Luke’s spirit.

“I love this guy!” gushes Frankie Caradonna, the film director. “The moment he answered my call he felt like a brother. He connects to people, you feel his background in his dishes. When we asked him to create this dish for the F wine, we were able to witness his creative process, it was almost transcendental.” 

The evening hits a high point with the introduction of not one, but two reds to complement our main course – The SESSANTANNI Primitivo di Manduria D.O.P Vintage 2012 and The Godfather 2015, with a coaster teasing us with the words “An Italian Secret.”

Like a rookie, I gulp down both one after another in a rush of excitement resulting in a euphonic mystery of soft and rich aromas and flavours.

Side-by-side these dynamic reds animate the deep flavours of our main course, a slow cooked wagyu beef brisket, sweet potato puree, pho spices foraged with members of the Red Dao community in the mountains of Sapa. 

The warm notes of SESSANTANNI’s Primitivo grapes bring out the Asian spices of star anise, cinnamon, clove and onions in small bursts at a time, while The Godfather with its impressive black bottle simply commanded diners to enjoy it. 

During our chat earlier, Luke had put it simply: “My parents are from Vietnam, I was born in Thailand, raised in Australia, and I’ve just come back from Italy. Cooking with Italian wines for this menu is an amalgamation of all of this together.” 

Indeed, this whole dinner has reflected the magic of what an extended modern family can be.

The finale comes in the form of a classic Italian tiramisu made with Vietnamese drip coffee from the central highlands and Marou chocolate from the south of Vietnam. A fitting finish coupled with the tranquil sweetness of ESTELLA Moscato, Salento I.G.P Vintage 2017.

It has always been a challenge to prove to fine dining enthusiasts that wines can be matched with Asian cuisine. San Marzano with its No Menu – Vietnam experience dispels this thinking. 

The marriage of cultures, techniques and produce from the small sun-kissed coastline in the south of Italy has found its way to Vietnam. 

For the diners here, San Marzano through Chef Luke Nguyen has created a direct relationship with the end customers, for which we are appreciative. 

We leave feeling part of a family with a special place at the table where wine, sharing, and beauty bonds. 

Saluti!

Words by Melanie Casul. Follow Melanie on Instagram at @melaniecasul

Photos provided by Malthop Vietnam

R&J Italian Lounge & Restaurant is at 57 – 69F Dong Khoi St., District 1, HCMC


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