I got invited to a US$400 per person dinner in Vietnam

On stormy rainy season evenings in Saigon the easy option is to stay home and order in pizza. But when chef Peter Cuong Franklin invites you to dinner, you’d better show up.

I’m always early to dinner parties. 

But tonight I’ve made sure I’m extra early. 

The ominous dark clouds rolling in over Saigon suggest that not only will the whisky be flowing tonight at Anan Saigon but so will the streets with floodwaters from the impending deluge. 

I need to quickly get to the small wet market where Anan Saigon is located in District 1, wedged among the street vendors, before my night is literally a washout. 

I could just turn back home and have a nice quiet evening eating leftovers or order in a pizza but who no-shows to a US$400 per person dinner featuring black winter truffles, caviar and single malt whiskey? It’s not everyday I get an invite like this.

I push on and before long I’m taking my place at the bar in the cosy Nhau Nhau, the cocktail bar within Anan Saigon.

Nhau Nhau, a retro-Saigon themed snug of a bar with a drinks list as eclectic as the restaurant downstairs (think coconut worm shots and cotton candy Old Fashioneds) is also the brainchild of chef Peter Cuong Franklin who’s hosting tonight’s dinner.

Chef Peter Cuong Franklin and mixologist Finn Le

Inside, wafts of an earthy pungent oil are already misting-up the air as resident mixologist Finn Le prepares an Old Fashioned with one of tonight’s stars of the evening, truffle. 

“How old is it?”, I ask facetiously.

“The truffle is older than the whiskey,” quips chef Franklin who’s within earshot. “In the new world things go by so fast. But our food tonight has taken 10 to 30 years!”

Indeed, tonight’s chef tasting menu has taken its own time to concoct, two months in fact, not quite as long as the whiskey or the truffles have taken to age, but long enough. 

While that’s all well and good, I’m hoping nothing else will take too long because I’m concerned about these whiskeys taking hold on my empty stomach.

Off the menu

Tinkering with things has become one of chef Franklin’s signature traits, after all he’s brought us the US$100 banh mi, Da Lat pizzas and ice-cream served up with fish sauce in a Chanel No.5 perfume bottle to spray on your dessert to taste. 

Tonight he’s tinkering with premium ingredients from the wild highlands of Scotland to the rolling hills of Western Australia and to the city of lakes and flowers in Vietnam, Dalat, Franklin’s hometown. 

This promises to be different from what’s usually on the menu here.

As with any foodie worth their nose (yes, a truffle pun), rather than present the evening with a quickfire bunch of Instagram Stories panels never to see the light of day again, I thought I’d take my time and write a brief review. 

And given the products featured this evening have taken their own time to mature, I think it’s only right to take more time to digest this. 

Caviar and scallop

Caviar and scallop paired with 12 year-old whiskey

Most of the time, scallops don’t excite me. I find them too small and rubbery, but tonight, the Hokkaido scallop is big, fat and juicy. It’s charred just how I like it, salty in flavour and balanced with a sweet and tangy mango jus, lusciously topped with black caviar from Dalat.

In case I’d forgotten, chef Franklin leans in to remind me: “Two fingers, one bite!”

This succulent appetiser tastes like the sea, but I’m not sure if it’s because of the scallop or the caviar. I guess both?

Either way, they show off the versatility of the 12 year-old whiskey in our welcome cocktails with just the right notes of honey, oranges and winter spices. 

Is it getting warm in here already?

Truffle chao

Truffle cháo paired with 18 year-old whiskey

With perfect timing, out comes a cool bowl of cháo rice foam, oyster, black winter truffle and an onsen egg. 

Traditionally, onsen eggs (or hot spring eggs) from where they get their name in Japan, are poached in the hot waters of an onsen making the egg white milky and soft and its yolk firm but retaining the colour of an uncooked one. 

I don’t recall seeing an onsen anywhere this side of Da Lat, but this dish is an example of the tinkering that chef Franklin gets up to around here.   

Spoonfuls of this elevated savoury porridge are refreshing after a few sneaky tipples of whiskey that are warming my belly.

Typically a comfort food in this part of the world, the cháo is accented with playful textures of foam with what look to be rice or corn pellets accompanying it.

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The pungent truffle enhances things ever so lightly without drowning out the subtleties of this intriguing dish.

I’d happily down it as a nightcap when out on a binge drinking session as a luxurious full stop to the evening. 

Marbled lamb

Marbled lamb paired with 25 year-old whiskey

The other highlight for me is the grain-fed Australian lamb with Da Lat mint, whiskey lamb sauce, broccoli and a spot of hot sauce.

The tender meat is mellow, definitely not gamey and the sauce hearty. I wish there was a small baguette to help mop up the plate, however.

Using whiskey in the lamb sauce is an imaginative way of showcasing the evening’s drink sponsor’s product, but I’ve got to say, you could drown Aussie lamb done chef Franklin’s way in Cholimex, a cheap local spicy sauce from a bottle, and it would still taste good.

The last shot

I’ve noticed a lot of themed fine dining events across the city since social distancing measures have ceased in Vietnam, each trying to top the next in their grandiosity. 

Alcohol sponsors have been splashing the cash putting on shindigs aboard yachts on the Saigon River, fashion shows featuring Vietnamese supermodels, and even mid-morning soirees beneath domed tents with laser light shows and images of sponsor products projected on the ceiling during tastings.

While tonight I too have been swept up in the ostentatiousness of it all and, some might say, its tone-deafness given the last couple of years, I can’t help but see the positive side.

Events like these backed by international brands with big bucks allow geniuses like Peter Cuong Franklin to work with the best products and the best seasonal ingredients harvested from far-flung corners of the planet allow me to sample some of the magic inside a small bar in a quiet wet market on a rainy Saigon night.  

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