Of Banana Blossoms and Beignets

From coastal villages to sophisticated cities, the cooking of Vietnam is ready for its culinary close-up. Jay Cheshes embarks on a tour of the country's restaurants and exotic markets.

Not too long ago it was easier to find a great Vietnamese meal in New York or Paris than it was in a restaurant in Saigon or Hanoi. For three decades, Vietnam experienced a sort of culinary stasis that started when the Communist government shuttered the best urban restaurants at the end of the war; the situation became more dire in the eighties and nineties as the nation endured periodic food shortages. But today Vietnam is a country transformed. At a crossroads between an industrial future and an agrarian past, it is alive with new money and stylish venues for spending it. A surging economy has brought a building boom and to most of the country, a fresh coat of paint. And Vietnamese cuisine, an amalgam of many influences—Chinese, French, Indian, and Thai—is as much in flux as the country itself.

Saigon (as it's still widely called by locals, despite the official name change to Ho Chi Minh City) is Vietnam's frantic commercial hub, where propaganda posters adorned with hammers and sickles compete for attention with KFC outlets and Dolce & Gabbana window displays. I traveled there this spring with a small group of chefs, on a tour organized by Michael Pardus, a professor of Asian cuisine at the Culinary Institute of America. Vietnam, long an undiscovered bargain, is now overflowing with tourists drawn by the vibrant cities, dramatic landscapes, and miles of white sand beaches. My companions and I, however, had come to sample the cuisine, and the moment we touched down—after a 20-hour flight—our conversation turned to the matter of locating the city's most popular dish. It was well past midnight when we wended our way from the airport through Saigon's dark, dormant streets. Outside Ben Thanh, the central market, we found a night-owl's haven whose tables were laden with steaming bowls.

Our guide—Michael Huynh, the Saigon-born chef of Bao 111, a terrifically chic little Manhattan restaurant—commandeered a long table and ordered everyone a cold beer and a big bowl of soup from a sidewalk food stand. Italians have pizza, Americans have burgers, Vietnam's equivalent is pho. This noodle soup (pho bo when made with beef, pho ga with chicken) starts with heaps of waterlogged meat and bones fortified with star anise, ginger, and cinnamon sticks and is then simmered into a rich stock. Chefs add rice noodles (heated to order), shaved onion, raw paper-thin beef (which cooks upon contact with the soup), green chiles, lime, and basil and mint leaves to create an incredibly satisfying meal.

"We like our pho hot and spicy in the south," Huynh explained, piling on the chiles and handfuls of herbs. Pho is actually a Hanoi invention; in northern Vietnam it is consumed mainly at breakfast, in a milder form. In Saigon, however, locals can be seen all through the day sitting on squat plastic stools next to pho carts contentedly slurping down the soup. In recent years quite a few cool and comfortable restaurants have opened. The chain Pho 2000, inaugurated when President Clinton dropped in to the flagship, is one of the best. Sit upstairs, as we did one evening, under framed photos commemorating Chelsea and Bill's well-documented meal.

Traveling through Vietnam, you often feel as if you're exploring the world's largest, most boisterous food court. In Ben Thanh's covered passageways we saw an endless array of vendors selling prepared meals: soups, sandwiches, assorted skewers, and spring rolls. Michael Ginor, co-owner of New York's Hudson Valley Foie Gras, the top U.S. purveyor of duck liver, snatched up a banh mi sandwich for a few crumpled dong (the overinflated national currency). "What could be better!" he declared, tearing into a crusty baguette slathered with hot sauce, paté, pickled vegetables, and slices of headcheese. This popular Vietnamese preparation translates the French colonial legacy into a distinctly Southeast Asian snack. "It's the original fusion cuisine," said Ginor, happily wiping crumbs from his chin.

Through the maze of stalls, we strolled past mounds of fresh exotic produce—sweet honey-scented mangosteens, the infamously malodorous but delicious fruit, the durian, tiny red bird's-eye chiles, whole conical banana blossoms, and fragrant green herbs (including fresh mint, which along with the ever-present fish sauce, adds a unique pungency to much of the food in the south). Not everybody is willing to play the gastric roulette associated with eating street food, so later in the day we were delighted to find the Saigon institution Quan An Ngon. The menu in this lush garden restaurant is enormous, and unless you speak Vietnamese, the best way to choose your lunch is by eyeing and pointing as you walk past the open-air food stations with a waiter in tow. We narrowed our feast down to delicate shiitake and pork-filled rice crêpes, snails stuffed with ground pork, shrimp wrapped around sugarcane, and grilled spicy squid. This was all washed down with 333—one of Vietnam's delicious locally brewed beers.

Some of the finest Saigon cuisine—traditionally sweet and sour, heavy on the lemongrass, with a fiery kick—is found at downtown restaurant Com Nieu Saigon. The house specialty, glutinous rice cake cooked in a brittle clay pot, is unveiled with the smash of a hammer that makes a thunderclaplike crash and leaves the expendable vessel in shards on the floor. In one final flourish the rice—miraculously free of clay splinters—is tossed into another waiter's steady hands. That night we also dined on cockle salad, which had an incendiary kick, and pork belly braised in coconut juice, which was beautifully supple and gave way in an instant to a chopstick tug. Tender baby green eggplants, braised simply with hot peppers and scallions, vied with dry shrimp-sprinkled dragon green stalks for the title of most popular vegetable dish. "This is really the local way of cooking," said Huynh between bites. "Just like my mother used to make."

With the myriad outside influences on the country—from traders to occupiers—its culinary traditions are always evolving. Before the American War (as the conflict here is known), Vietnam was the domain of the French. They left behind architectural gems, along with coffee, pastries, and fine bread. In Saigon the refurbished colonial opera house gleams in the sun. Across the street, at the Hôtel Continental, you can request the enormous corner room where Graham Greene stayed, then wander a few blocks for drinks and a bite at the sort of place, had it existed, the writer would surely have gone.

Hidden down a long corridor above an ice cream café, Temple Club, founded by Frenchman Luc Lejeune and Hong Kong native Stella Jo, has the forbidden allure of an opium den. Oil lamps cast latticework shadows on elephant sculptures and teak furniture. Here Vietnamese staples get a refined Indochine spin. For a late-afternoon lunch we tackled an appetizer platter: a kaleidoscope of nibbles—refreshingly ungreasy spring rolls, tender beef wrapped in pungent la lot (betel) leaves—tucked around a bed of greens. Best of all was a succulent pot of caramel pork, which my companion and I fought over.

Beef is expensive in Vietnam and so it is served sparingly, mostly in soup. Pork, on the other hand, is abundant and cheap. The country is literally a paradise for pork addicts, particularly those with a weakness for sweet lacquered morsels—braised as they were by Temple Club's chef, or more rustically, and ubiquitously, skewered and grilled.


TO THE SEA

Vietnam's extensive coastline begins in the Mekong Delta and stretches north for 2,000 miles—swampy flatlands giving way to golden beaches then steep black peaks that collide with the sea. Nha Trang, north of Saigon, is where natives go when they're craving the beach and the freshest seafood.

One of our traveling companions, San Francisco-based chef Khai Duong, grew up in the area and he invited the group to spend the day with his family. There are more than 70 islands off the coast in the bay of Nha Trang. A few have hotels, but most are empty. A skiff was waiting to take us to lunch on a speck in the bay where Duong's sisters live and raise lobster and shrimp.

We pulled into a tiny lagoon and were immediately ushered up a wooden plank to a long table set up under the palms. We sank straws into coconuts then sat down to a banquet of colorful dishes: grilled calamari in a spicy dry rub, sea eel in rich curry broth, fish so fresh we gladly ate it raw in a cevichelike jumble with peanuts and onions. "Nha Trang has the finest cuisine in the country," Duong bragged as more mouthwatering seafood arrived. "It's the center of Vietnam, a crossroads. We get the best of the north and south." We clinked our beers in the traditional toast. "Yo," we announced. "One, two, three, yo!" After lunch, we went for a hike over a hill through brambles to a pristine and abandoned white stretch of beach.

At Ana Mandara Resort & Spa on the mainland at the edge of Nha Trang, I found a similarly gorgeous beach—though hardly deserted—with waiter service and cushioned chairs in the shade. The hotel's chef, David Thai, leads market tours and cooking classes highlighting the region's cuisine. Twice a week he brings his own version of a street market onto the resort grounds, setting up a poolside evening buffet of all sorts of spring rolls deep-fried to order, a vast open grill, and stations for rice crêpes, soups, and barbecued pork.

The country's first boutique resort, Ana Mandara remained the standard-bearer until last year, when its ultraluxurious sister hotel, Evason Hideaway, opened 30 minutes away on a secluded peninsula. Erik Gremmer, the young Dutchman behind Evason's kitchen, wine cellar, and enormous herb garden, was last at Fregate Island Private, the Seychelles getaway favored by a celebrity clientele. Here he has created a menu that offers a taste of how chefs with global sensibilities have begun to incorporate Vietnamese accents. (Along with using indigenous produce that sprouts inland from Nha Trang, Gremmer buys from specialized farms in the temperate mountains that cultivate such Western staples as artichokes, strawberries, and microgreens.) During a languid lunch I worked through five courses—among them, cold artichoke soup, locally caught raw tuna and lobster rolled up with mango, and seafood tempura in a fresh tamarind sauce—and still felt nimble enough to take a dip in the pool before my flight north to Hanoi.


NORTHERN EXPOSURE

The capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is a lovely European-style city with treelined boulevards and manicured lakes. Where Saigon is frenetic, Hanoi moves at a slower pace. Crowds of foreign diplomats and journalists, as well as frayed colonial buildings, lend a time-warp quality that collides with the steel-and-glass towers of the new Vietnam (large sections of the city were destroyed by U.S. bombs). Reminders of the war, not much on the minds of the city's young denizens—60 percent of the population was born after 1975—still hide around corners. Ho Chi Minh idles in his mausoleum. A chunk of the old Hanoi Hilton (the infamous prison, not the hotel) has been preserved as a shrine and museum.

The food in this more seasonal region, where temperatures often dip enough in winter that hats and gloves are required, tends to be far less assertive than it is in the tropical south. There are clear influences from China and France as well as the omnipresent black pepper and copious herbs. But though the preparations here are significantly milder, they are by no means boring. Wander through Hanoi's serpentine markets and you'll spy all sorts of unusual creatures: frogs by the bucketful; baskets of writhing grubs, a local delicacy best served deep-fried. One of the most appealing spots to get a taste of the North's unusual offerings is Highway 4, a restaurant and bar run by a Brit and a Swiss and his Vietnamese wife. On the rooftop patio, we reclined on cushions while working our way through an aperitif sampler of house-brewed ruou, an artisanal rice liquor infused with everything from fruit and herbs to snakes and lizards (a gigantic bottle on the downstairs bar holds a coiled cobra that must measure 20 feet long). The menu offers a near menagerie's worth of exotic creatures—from fried scorpions to stir-fried crocodile—all prepared in the authentic style of the indigenous tribes who live up north near the real Highway 4, on the border with Laos.

There's an expat hand at work behind many of Hanoi's intriguing restaurants. Bobby Chinn's, a silk-curtained lounge facing Hoan Kiem Lake, would be right at home on a fashionable stretch of downtown San Francisco. Which is exactly where its flamboyant, talented namesake might still be if he hadn't abandoned banking to pursue a career first in stand-up comedy and second in food. Trained under Hubert Keller of the Bay City's Fleur de Lys, Chinn has been in Hanoi for nearly a decade. "In the States I might be called a chef," he said over lunch. "But they don't have that concept here. In the eyes of the Vietnamese I'm just a cooker." Chinn integrates his Egyptian and Chinese heritage with the cuisine of his adopted home, and the result is a fascinating hodgepodge—from finely wrought Middle Eastern mezes to reinterpreted banh cuon (Hanoi rice rolls) filled with filet mignon instead of minced pork. His barramundi, blackened Cajun-style, comes with a traditional Vietnamese salad of banana blossoms and crumbled peanuts.

A far more sober and upscale meal was had just off the lake at the fabled Sofitel Metropole Hotel. Last refurbished almost a decade ago, the Metropole wears its colonial heritage proudly. The white exterior is accented by deep green shutters; inside guests lounge in leather chairs and pith-helmeted waiters bear gin and tonics on silver trays.

It's one of the most spectacular properties in Southeast Asia, but for ten years the Metropole has also claimed a gastronomic draw—the elegant cooking of Breton-born Didier Corlou. With the confidence and physical stature of a Paul Bocuse, Corlou has become Vietnam's only true celebrity chef. At the Spices Garden restaurant he puts a modern painterly spin on the country's complex cuisine. At lunch I returned three times to the stunning buffet, where tiny morsels—smoked salmon banh cuon cut on the bias, crab claw beignets peeking from shot glasses—are arrayed on trays like works of art. Corlou gets somewhat more serious come dinnertime at the hotel's formal restaurant, Le Beaulieu, offering up tasting menus of seven courses or more. For my last meal in Hanoi, I dined on velvety foie gras with lemongrass and a shockingly good sea bass and caviar with green-pepper sorbet. Corlou has been working with local chefs for years now and his combinations are pitch perfect—a grand finale to a journey through the new Vietnam.


VIETNAM ADDRESS BOOK

SAIGON
Com Nieu Saigon Dinner, $25. 6C Tu Xuong St., District 3; 84-8/820-3188

Pho 2000 Dinner, $6. 1-3 Phan Chu Trinh St., District 1; 84-8/822-4294

Quan An Ngon Dinner, $10. 138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia St., District 1; 84-8/829-9449

Temple Club Dinner, $50. 29-31 Ton That Thiep St., District 1; 84-8/829-9244

NHA TRANG
Ana Mandara Resort and Spa Dinner, $70. Beachside Tran Phu Blvd.; 84-58/829-829

Evason Hideaway Dinner, $70. Beachside Tran Phu Blvd.; 84-58/728-222

HANOI
Bobby Chinn's Dinner, $50. 1 Ba Trieu St., Hoan Kiem District; 84-4/934-8577

Highway 4 $ Dinner, $10. 5 Hang Tre, Hoan Kiem District, 84-4/926-0639, and 54 Mai Hac De, Hai Ba Trung District, 84-4/976-2647

Sofitel Metropole Hanoi Dinner at Spices Garden, $60, and Le Beaulieu, $70. 15 Ngo Quyen St., Hoan Kiem District; 84-4/826-6919

Food tours to Vietnam are offered by the Culinary Institute of America (866-242-2433; www.worldsofflavor.com) and by Chef Tour Vietnam (212-725-0624; www.cheftourvietnam.com).

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.