Friday, 3 June 2011

Vietnam and Shanghai

Highlights of my February trip to Asia. The best restaurants were the ones that are not for tourists.

How will I abbreviate three weeks of eating all over Asia? I'll start with Vietnam where I discovered aromatic, flavorful and complex food everyday. I found that the best places to go are not the ones in the guide books. If you tell your hotel concierge that you are really looking for authentic cuisine, he will send you to simple and very cheap places where you will discover gastronomic treasures.

In both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, you can't go wrong with Nha Hang Ngon. Sitting at communal tables and perusing an endless list of wonderful dishes, you can just choose and be assured that you will be served something delicious. Of course, I have the cilantro problem but with the card I handed to the waiter written in his language, I had nothing to fear. Meals are cheap and excellent. The first night I discovered the restaurant was during the Tet holiday (Chinese New Year) which consists of 10 days of joyous celebration, dancing in the streets, riding around the city on noisy motor cycles and days off from work. I started with Banh Xeo which was a large and tender Vietnamese rice pancake filled with mung bean sprouts, shrimp and exotic lettuces, served with a spicy dipping sauce. The people who sat at the table with me lucked out with a half coconut that had whole fresh shrimps hanging off its side. I continued with Bun Cha Gio: vermicelli and fried spring rolls served with an herb and fish sauce. Next came gorgeous pork rolls that were crunchy with a sugar crust. You dip the rolls into an aromatic peanut sauce. Finally, skewered beef that also comes with its own wonderful sauce. Is it possible that with the New Year's supplement charge my bill came to $7.50 ??? I pondered this question throughout the trip.

In Hanoi, I also went to Nha Hang Ngon for lunch and had a regional dish: Bun Bo Hue. It is a flavorful beef noodle soup: the noodles are what makes the dish. With that, I chose Tom Hap Cuon Banh Trang. My waiter filled each of the paper thin shells with vegetables and steamed shrimp one by one. He was so grateful for the $1 tip I gave him that he offered me a tour of the restaurant. The atmosphere is very upbeat and fun. I could have gone to this place everyday.

The thing to get in Vietnam, of course, is Pho. It's full of cilantro but they can leave it off. A great place to go is Pho 24 which is an excellent chain where they serve Pho from morning until night. You can choose what you want to go into it and the chicken Pho is my favorite. This is the dish to have at breakfast (like croissants in France), but I could never get myself to eat it in the morning.

After ten days in Vietnam with the wonderful cuisine and variety of ingredients used creatively, I vowed to find some good places in Paris. Thusfar, I have come up with zilch.

Off to Shanghai where I have friends and also was lucky enough to find the Pei Mansion Hotel--a boutique Art Deco hotel in a lovely area. As I was only going to be in Shanghai for three days, I requested that the hotel organize a tour for me. Martin and Jimmy spent a day with me, during which we drove to the highlights and took lovely walks. It was unseasonably freezing and so it was hard to stay outside for very long, but I got enough of a taste of the city to promise myself that I would return during a future spring season.

For lunch, Martin chose to take me to a 5-star hotel (The Regal Shanghai East Asia Hotel) where we had a veritable Cantonese banquet. The Chinese tend to order more than anyone can eat as this is the way they express hospitality. I am sure we had 20 dishes and of course, could not finish the lunch. There were spring rolls stuffed with shredded chicken, a baked turnip cake, savory and sweet dumplings. barbecued pork with a honey spicy sauce, fish congee (a rice porridge) with garlic, seafood soup, egg custard tart, pork dumplings, rice flour roll with shredded chicken and black mushrooms etc. etc. Martin explained that some of the dishes were excellent examples of the Cantonese style and ordered them precisely because he wanted me to try them. Foodie that I am, I tasted everything. What a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.

My friends, Robert and Maria took me to the most famous dumpling place in China with branches all over the country. This is a very popular place and even with a reservation, we had to wait, but it was worth it. The name of the place is Din Tai Fung. Basically you order different types of bao (dumplings) and baozi (larger buns) that are filled with wonderful things like pork and vegetables, black truffle with chicken, just pork, just chicken, sauteed cantonese vegetables. You dip each into a vinegary sauce. It is hard not to eat them all. They are served in bamboo steamers and for the bao, you get about 9 per order. The larger baozi come in threes. It is not an expensive way to dine and is truly excellent.

During my travels, I met a Canadian resident of the city. She knew where to go and directed me to Di Shui Dong on Maoming Road. Speaking not a word of Chinese and going alone, I had no trouble finding the place and ordering as the servers were kind and patient and because the menus are a collection of photos of the dishes. This is Hunan style cooking which means very spicy. It was terrific and very cheap. I had Stir Fried Smoked Tofu with Hunan Beans and cayenne pepper--very hot and spicy. With this, I chose stir-fried roasted green beans, egg plant and smokey bacon. Rice cut the fire and I also chose Singha Beer with my meal and green tea afterwards. Two large dishes and drinks came to the equivalent of $14.

I can't resist publishing a photo of the stunning Sweet and Sour Mandarin Fish that Robert, Maria, and I ordered at Song Helou on the Bund. For Valentine's Day we treated ourselves to a wonderful Mandarin dinner in this restaurant with a beautiful view. Other highlights were Stew-Fred River Eel, Four Oil Stewed Vegetables and of course, Steamed Bao with Mushrooms. And we couldn't resist the crunchy Pan Fried Bao filled with Pork. It was a beautiful and lovely way to mark my last night in Shanghai (for now).

My trips to Asia have always been very successful. I find that the people are kind and helpful and I enjoy experiencing the culture and discovering the culinary treasures. As I flew away from Shanghai back to Paris, I made a pact with myself that it would not be long before I took another trip to Vietnam and China (Shanghai).


A wonderful new French restaurant that is greatly in demand. The limited menu is the brain child of a young and very creative chef.

A wonderful new French restaurant that is greatly in demand. The limited menu is the brain child of a young and very creative chef.

I had seen Frenchie in the Guide Michelin and was interested because it had the "Bib Gourmand" designation which is awarded to restaurants where you can expect to get an inexpensive meal of excellent quality. I wanted to go there, but when I called and listened to the "reservations rules" I knew that getting a table would be a challenging endeavor.

is open for dinner during the week and takes reservations during the week only from 3 to 5. I called, got through eventually, and just asked for the first table they had available. I was eager try Frenchie and thought of going alone, but when I told my friend, Adriana, that I had nailed a table in a competitive restaurant, she was game to join me. We had a delectable experience.

It is a small unassuming place with about 20 seats on a side street near the lively rue de Montorgueil: a shopping street bar none. The small youthful staff is completely bilingual and the chef, Grégory Marchand, worked with Jamie Oliver in London and in NY. He is creative and enthusiastic and creates marvelous dishes in his tiny kitchen with a window into the restaurant.

The menu, comprised of two choices of three dishes (plus a special foie gras torchon, agrumes) as a pre-appetizer, changes daily. They suggest that a duo order every dish so that everything can be tasted and tested.

The meal was thoroughly delicious and we had a wonderful time. First came fresh crab salad with preserved lemon and spring onions; sweetbreads with mushrooms and a wild greens salad. Both dishes were excellent, complex and beautifully presented. Our main courses were a beautiful rosy trout with lemon oil, wild asparagus and smoked baby potatoes and a thick piece of beef with carrots, ginger and beans from the South of France. It was best to start with the trout and have the beef afterwards--moving from light to heavier fare.

The cheese dish is optional and our night we skipped the wonderful blue cheese from Causses--in the south of France, served with lemon zests and amarena cherries. We wanted to go directly to the passion fruit tart garnished with caramel au beurre salé (made with salt butter) and the luscious and light panna cotta with an avocado purée and bits of chocolate pearls. Such a satisfying and exciting dinner.

The prices are very reasonable for food of this caliber (38 euros for three courses) as promised by the Guide Michelin and frankly, I can't wait to go back.