Melanie Casul warms up for a milestone birthday with the best French cuisine Vietnam has to offer
I’ve always planned to make it to Paris for my golden birthday and as it happens, I have just one more year left to fulfil my dream.
So when I get the opportunity to spend my 49th birthday dining at La Maison 1888 at the exquisite InterContinental DaNang Sun Peninsula Resort, I grab it with glee, because who knows what may happen between now and next year?
The invitation sets the mood for the evening: “An elegant dress code is part of the La Maison 1888 experience. Gentlemen are invited in business attire (jacket not required); dresses, smart skirts or trousers are suggested for ladies.”
Pierre Gagnaire’s style is complemented by what I can now say is my newest white wine obsession
No problem, I thought, as I unpack my crumpled long white beach dress along with my partner’s flashy dress shirt with one hand and dial housekeeping with the other.
We have plenty of time to have them pressed with a little starch added to his collar should it need it. I would do whatever it takes to be ready for this promised unique French dining experience in Vietnam.
Earlier in the day, John Hamilton, Director of Marketing at the resort, had taken us around the property for a tour, affording us a daytime glimpse of the restaurant designed by architect-artist Bill Bensley.
With a commanding view of the mountain and the sea, the multi-story building looks like a colonial Indochine mansion whose owners have sumptuously decorated it with high ceilings, chandeliers and large comfortable furniture suitable for the tropics that invite its occupants to a leisurely evening of gastronomics.
I can’t wait to see it at night!
But first, a dip in the clear blue bay of Son Tra Peninsula.
Only a few minutes into the sun, the calm soothing beach is no match for my bubbling anticipation of feasting at Vietnam’s first restaurant to feature a chef famed for his cooking at a Michelin star restaurant in France.
I’m eager to find out what Pierre Gagnaire has in store for us this evening.
At exactly seven o’ clock in the evening, we arrive at La Maison 1888 in style, riding one of the electric buggies that ferry guests and staff up and down the mountain face the resort is perched upon.
This is something new, I muse, being delivered to a five-star French restaurant in what appears to be a golf cart.
We are greeted at the door by Florian Dabezies, La Maison 1888’s restaurant manager and led elegantly into the romantic, candlelit main restaurant on the ground floor that has authentic French bossa nova from the 1960s and 70s playing softly through the speakers.
What a relief to hear the originals being played, unlike the covers that seem to intrude just about everywhere these days.
For a weekday, the restaurant is full, abuzz with hushed conversations.
The evening gets underway with the clinking of champagne and wine glasses as guests wait to begin their journey into the limited edition Spring Set Menu which can be enjoyed as three, four or five courses.
Not wanting to overindulge our invitation to dine as guests of the resort, we decide not to order the full five courses.
It proves to be a master stroke as our dinner service (four courses) lingers long like a luxurious dance, with a series of classic French dishes infused with an understated Vietnamese vibe. As it turns out, our stomachs barely have enough room to enjoy one of the best wine selections in Vietnam.
Ducking straight into it
Up first is a parade of the chef’s choice of canapés that includes pâté en croûte, roasted almonds, fresh coriander duck jelly and foie gras (my favourite) and xá xíu pork tenderloin slices on a mini bánh mì.
Pierre Gagnaire’s style is complemented by what I can now say is my newest white wine obsession.
“Have you seen the Netflix show Emily in Paris? Sancerre is not just a breakfast wine,” quips head sommelier Jimmy Chang, as he pours one of the smoothest sauvignon blancs my taste buds have ever encountered.
This, among other small talk and trivia over the course of our two-hour luxury dinner, keeps us entertained and wanting more.
Next up is langoustine (a Norwegian lobster) flavoured with Buddha’s hand and pan-fried in olive oil and delicately half-submerged in a parmesan cream and mild curry, followed by a ceviche featuring langoustine again, but this time mint-infused with a lemon and rambutan vodka topped with granita and three fragrant asparagus spears resting on the side.
Ahead of the game
Our garçon, Toan, ahead of the game, had read my preference sheet earlier and carefully notes that I’m allergic to shellfish.
But, suddenly, as if by magic, it seems my allergies disappear whenever a crustacean is prepared to exacting Michelin star standards, so I reassure our anxious waiter not to worry.
The wagyu beef tenderloin with marbling 8/9 soon comes out once our sommelier, Jimmy, uncorks the 2018 Le Renard Pinot Noir from Burgundy, which has the best rated vintage to date.
It’s easily the most exquisite pairing with its earthy dryness and warmness with notes of cherries and blackberries complementing the beefy flavours of the perfectly seared tenderloin surrounded by a decorative bayaldi tart, sweet onion jam, pumpkin purée, and Ly Son sweet garlic croquettes, that hems in our freshly- poured gravy.
Whispering sweet everythings
The coffee and tea on offer can wait as we drink to our hearts’ content the velvety smooth pinot noir before transitioning into the lovely sweet vegan dessert wine, the 2008 Domaine Huet Vouvray ‘Clos du Bourg’ Premiere Trie Moelleux – another stunning vintage that accompanies the quatre of ‘The Pierre Gagnaire Grand Dessert’.
A flan kicks off this most epic of desserts, its creamy rizière enchantée made with pandan leaves, Madagascar vanilla rice mousse, rhubarb crumble, and sprinkled with caramelised puffed rice.
The Fruits of Vietnam, a Vietnamese medley of seasonal fruits, is probably the least I gravitate towards, but the mosaic of mango coulis with passion fruit, Italian meringue and marzipan is elevated with a generous sprinkling of fruit jus poured on-site by Pierre-Emmanuel Fritsch, Chef Pâtissier, himself.
Soon after, chef Pierre goes into an impassioned explanation of his favourite, The Provence, a strawberry sorbet with gazpacho basil, candied olives drizzled with Alexis Munoz olive oil finished with a sacristan – a twisty crispy bread stick.
I guess they don’t call it “grand” for nothing with our finale, but the chocolate gluten-free biscuit made with a Hennessy Cognac XO ganache with cumin nougatine pampelune water and whipped chocolate cream, steals the show, but only just.
This could just very well be the stuff of what last meals are made of.
So, will I make it to Paris next year to have an authentic French dinner for my 50th?
That will be up to some luck, but this definitely ranks as the next best thing.
Melanie was a guest of InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort
When she’s not exploring new taste sensations, she works in the field of student support services at RMIT University Vietnam
Photos of the resort property provided by InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort
Photos of the food and wine by Melanie on her Samsung mobile phone
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