Heav­enly Din­ing

In­dulge in deca­dent con­ti­nen­tal—with del­i­cate touches of Thai fla­vors—cui­sine in a pic­turesque colo­nial villa

Oi Vietnam - - Money Talks - Text by Michael Arnold Im­ages by Cuong Toc Do

MANY RESTAU­RANTS IN THIS town have tried their hard­est to put on the face of lux­ury; few have suc­ceeded. Se­cluded in a quiet Thao Dien back street, Stel­lar (43 Tran Ngoc Dien, Thao Dien, D2) has done its best to at­tempt the op­po­site—set up a word­lessly beau­ti­ful venue where guests will feel both charmed and at home—and have sur­passed them­selves to the point that if this is ca­sual din­ing, it’s the finest of its kind in the city.

Stel­lar is jaw-drop­pingly im­pres­sive on two counts: firstly, the venue looks so much like a minia­ture five-star re­sort that I wasn’t the first per­son to ask if there’s an op­tion to spend the night there. A per­fectly-ren­o­vated villa, Stel­lar has no less than three wa­ter fea­tures in­stalled out­side, an im­mac­u­late bath­room, and a dream kitchen in a sep­a­rate red-brick struc­ture that is so spa­cious and squeaky-clean that most peo­ple would be quite at ease tak­ing din­ner in there.

This last point re­lates di­rectly to the sec­ond count: the qual­ity of the cui­sine. Stel­lar’s ex­ec­u­tive chef, Mr. It­tipol Sam­ran, is a pres­ti­gious name in Thai­land, where he has served roy­alty, min­is­te­rial din­ers, cor­po­rate demigods, and all man­ner of other VIPs. The restau­rant’s Thai own­ers man­aged to se­cure this tal­ent only by mak­ing this venue a chef ’s dream come true—the best kitchen, the best sous-chefs (a su­per­star mixol­o­gist spe­cial­iz­ing in craft cock­tails is due to join the team this month), the

best of every­thing. Chef It­tipol per­son­ally flew to Fin­land to touch the ebony-black stone serv­ing trays be­fore the or­der was ap­proved; he hand-se­lected the Ger­man cut­lery and opaque glass plates. His per­sonal gar­den grows the best of his pre­ferred herb va­ri­etals—one gets the sense that the cheff­ing job at Stel­lar was an im­pos­si­ble gig to refuse.

Happy chef, happy diner. We re­viewed a feast of Chef It­tipol’s choic­est cre­ations, start­ing with his amuse-bouche of the day—a ba­nana prawn skewer with may­on­naise—with prawn, cherry tomato, mango, and cap­sicum served on caviar. The chef has a new (free of charge) sur­prise for din­ers ev­ery night; ours was fresh and fill­ing and a suc­cinct in­tro­duc­tion to this chef ’s in­nate sense of play­ful­ness with his own cui­sine.

We then em­barked on a pro­ces­sion of ab­so­lute ex­trav­a­gances chal­leng­ing the ex­tremes of what could com­fort­ably be de­scribed as “ca­sual din­ing.” Open­ing with a mood-en­hanc­ing ap­ple mar­tini and fruity straw­berry mar­garita (both­VND150,000) that awak­ened all senses to what was to come, we moved on to the pork kurobuta salad (VND250,000), which came pre­pared with some herbs, ap­ple strudel, and cherry toma­toes with a lit­tle sautéed wild mush­room and Di­jon mus­tard sauce. Even the ap­pe­tizer had its own story—the pork is from a rare Span­ish/Ja­panese hy­brid an­i­mal with a su­per-soft pork neck that grills nice and juicy and car­ries a mild, gen­tle umami.

Next came the foie gras peach pan­fried Toulouse duck liver, served with caramelized peach and peach sauce, along­side rasp­ber­ries and rocket leaf. At VND490,000, this dish was firm and juicy rather than greasy, a dif­fi­cult trick

to pull off with foie gras. Like­wise the com­plex fla­vors of the lob­ster bisque (VND225,000), a Cana­dian lob­ster broth flamed with co­gnac, comes mas­ter­fully pre­pared with light cream so as to avoid the heav­i­ness some­times as­so­ci­ated with French soups that are rarely pre­ferred by Asian ex­pat clien­tele.

Home in a Palace

Stel­lar’s menu is largely fo­cused around Con­ti­nen­tal cui­sine (Chef

It­tipol spent two decades in France), but there are some touches of Thai­land, as re­vealed in the spaghetti tom yum tiger prawns (VND450,000), a sautéed pasta that draws on kaf­fir lime, Thai basil and galan­gal el­e­ments to re­fo­cus the pun­gency of the seafood into that char­ac­ter­is­tic Thai in­ten­sity much loved in the broadly-pop­u­lar na­tional soup dish tom yum goong. This was fol­lowed by a palate-cleansing lemon sor­bet served with fresh berries (VND150,000) that was well-bal­anced and cleared the way for the meal’s sec­ond act.

We en­joyed two top-shelf cat­e­gory dishes that di­aled the deca­dence up to 11—start­ing with a pan-roasted snow fish steak (VND650,000) served with sautéed spinach, cherry toma­toes con­fit and bal­samic sauce. Snow­fish usu­ally makes for an oily steak; this serv­ing is oven-cooked prior to roast­ing so as to de­liver a melt-in-your-mouth con­sis­tency aug­mented by a heady port wine sauce and the tex­ture of the side veg­eta­bles.

King of the night was the Aus­tralian lamb rack (VND520,000) roasted with crusted herbs and served with skew­ered veg­eta­bles and gar­lic rose­mary sauce. While the qual­ity of the meat was un­de­ni­able, the bril­liance of the rose­mary lay in its con­trast with the mint sauces tra­di­tion­ally of­fered with lamb in many Euro­pean coun­tries—for those who grew up on it, this re­boot on a child­hood fa­vorite is both sur­pris­ing and fa­mil­iar. It was nicely paired with a glass of bou­tique Chilean caber­net sauvi­gnon.

Stel­lar’s desserts are ex­cep­tional also—un­able to set­tle for one, we shared a “Soft Bit­ter” choco­late cake with rasp­berry sauce filled with a French 60%-dark fon­dant choco­late, topped with vanilla ice cream and fresh berries, no less. At VND250,000, this dessert could eas­ily have been sweet­ened to over-ex­cess, but the sugar bal­ance was very con­trolled. By con­trast, the ba­nana panna cotta (VND180,000) served with fresh berries, al­mond bis­cotti with vanilla

sauce, stood out for its ex­tremely in­tense yel­low-ba­nana taste, de­rived from its essence be­ing hand­made from the juice of crushed fresh ba­nana, and in­clud­ing real Mada­gas­can vanilla.

There’s no get­ting around the fact that Stel­lar is far more the fine din­ing venue than the re­laxed restau­rant it as­pires to be, but that needn’t be any cause for concern. Come pre­pared for lux­ury treat­ment, but don’t dress up for it—have a good time at Stel­lar and for the course of the evening you’ll know what it is like to feel at home in a palace. En­joy it.

Snow fish, straw­berry mar­garita

Clock­wise from top left: Lob­ster Bisque, Aus­tralian Lamb Rack, Spaguetti Tom Yum, Amuse Bouche, Lemon Sor­bet, Soft Bit­ter, Ap­ple Mar­tini, Kurobuta Salad

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