I’ve been obsessed with Vietnamese food for years. One of the most used cookbooks in my kitchen in London is The Songs of Sapa, a collection of regional and family recipes with beautiful photography by Alan Benson. I’ve made the bún chả (seasoned pork patties with vermicelli noodles) more times than I can remember.
Taking my obsession on a long-haul trip, I went recently on a tour of Vietnam. For two weeks, I sampled various local street-food specialities, from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (or, indeed, Saigon, as everyone in the country still calls it). On my last night, I felt like eating somewhere with air conditioning and a wine list – two things that hadn’t featured at all before then.
I’d passed Vietnam House several times while walking around the centre of Saigon. It opened last summer in an elegant old colonial building in District 1, at the heart of town – close to Hermès and Christian Louboutin. It looked precisely like the kind of restaurant I was looking for, so in I went. The interior was a long way from the plastic stools of Saigon’s street food – there is chic wooden furniture, richly patterned marble floors, colourful glass panelling and crystal chandeliers. The air conditioning was as full-on as the service (Vietnamese service can be a little officious generally), and the wine list delivered: I was so happy to see Roederer available by the glass (488,000 VND, around £16.50) that I ended up ordering several.
Vietnamese-Australian chef Luke Nguyen is an international celebrity on the TV food circuit, and here he takes traditional recipes and feeds them through a high-end filter – beef lá lốt is made with wagyu (around £9), while crispy rice flour crepes come filled with crabmeat, Iberico pork and palm hearts (around £7.60). Everything I ate had the freshness I’d come to expect of Vietnamese flavours, but with a meticulous approach to presentation and interesting fusion twists.
A week after returning to London, I reached for The Songs of Sapa, keen to make something spicy with lemongrass, fish sauce and pork. For the first time, I noticed who the author was: Luke Nguyen. I don’t know why I hadn’t made the connection earlier. It made me like Vietnam House, and look forward to a return visit, even more.