Pardon my French, but I am not about to bulls**t 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 for this story, I found every flowery turn of phrase extolling their successes and their restaurant’s three Michelin star-acclaim start to conjure up images of two giants of mythical proportions from the culinary world.
My expectations of the twins’ latest venture – Jardin Des Sens – in Saigon grew by the moment, just as a wet season storm cell does over the city before it unleashes its fury.
Other publications here have gushed over their eye-catching culinary delights, their 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. Impressive!
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Thanks to reviews like these, expectations inflate, much in the way the price of wine can the closer you get to the bottom of the list.
At the bottom of theirs, Jardin Des Sens has a 2009 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti pinot noir priced at VND140,000,000 (US$6,125).
Fancy a drop?
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 and have never read a review of the place.
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. We are intrigued.
We go about like shoppers at an IKEA store running our hands over as much of the furniture as is socially acceptable and imagine how each item would look in my apartment.
My favourite is the two-seater lounge, designed so that couples can sit next to each other facing in opposite directions, yet still be able to look into each other’s eyes if they wish.
Beyond is an air-conditioned wine cellar. 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.
Meanwhile, the dining room on the second floor has a capacity of close to 40 people. It is beautifully decorated with Modernist furniture. The chairs are again 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 carry plates and glasses across the dining room throughout the evening.
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; 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 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, one of us commits probably the biggest faux-pas of the evening when they dub it a “French surf and turf.”
Fortunately for us, the Pourcel brothers themselves – who are only occasionally in Ho Chi Minh City – aren’t here to witness such blasphemy.
In many respects though, the comment is right. The tastes of the earth and sea come crashing through the dish.
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.
It proves that you don’t go hungry despite what you hear about some fine dining experiences.
Throughout the evening we are treated to dishes rooted in French fine dining tradition, yet 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 making it accessible to diners not as familiar with it.
The chicken and fish mains suit any palate and paired with our waiter’s thoughtful wine selection, dare I say, “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 on the menu here to provide moments of excitement, like that zip of the wasabi chantilly followed by the aromatic quick burst of pepper, anise, mint and 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) 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 Instagramming and messaging 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 Saigon like it.
Loving the creativity and attention to detail with every dish
Recommend giving the business lunch a try
Shutdown the computer early for the day and kick the weekend off with a chardonnay over lunch
Think about renting the summer house in the same grounds for an event or party
Words by Matthew Cowan. Follow Matt on Instagram at @mattcowansaigon
Photos by Mike Palumbo. Follow Mike on Instagram at @mikepalumbo_
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
[The Bureau was invited as a guest of Jardin Des Sens]
Jardin Des Sens is at 251 Dien Bien Phu St., District 1, HCMC