Here’s a magazine feature from a few months back where I take a cooking class with and interview the three Michelin star maestro (for 35 years running!) and ultimate culinary gentleman, Michel Roux senior.
“The Slow Train to Gastronomy”
There can be no more exhilarating way to appreciate the Vietnam coast than by train, hugging vertiginous cliffs, skirting azure bays and occasionally seeming to defy the laws of physics as the ‘Reunification Express’ drags itself through and over hills.
Following three nights in the beautiful and iconic Metropole and La Résidence hotels, in Hanoi and Hué respectively, first class on Vietnam Railways from Hué to Da Nang (US$3) reminds that functioning air conditioning and cleanliness are a privilege, not a right. What it may lack in comfort, however, it more than makes up for in experience as it snakes 50 miles in around three hours. Waves crash into the rocky shore beneath you and sunlight dazzles off the East Vietnam Sea before you are suddenly plunged into total darkness through a tunnel. Emerging the other end, a whole new vista awaits.
Finally to Da Nang, the jumping-off point for the Intercontinental Resort on the Son Tra Peninsula. Just a 30-minute drive from Da Nang station takes you worlds away from the bustle and industry of Vietnam’s third largest city. The car winds its way up the Son Tra nature reserve, renamed ‘Monkey Mountain’ by US forces for the macaques, langurs and lorises living in its forests, before depositing you at the elegant lobby. Your eyes are immediately drawn away from the day beds and white marble however to the views outside. It is, simply, a beautiful property. The rooms, suites, penthouses and villas all overlook a pristine and private bay, the 700-meter beach and forested hills beyond.
Harvard-educated, Bangkok-based architect Bill Bensley is the man behind the resort’s singular look and feel. After persistent approaches from the property owner he accepted the project and began a yearlong process of immersion to learn and take inspiration from classic Vietnamese design. Temples, palaces, natural vistas, imperial tombs and the ancient streets of Hoi An all contributed to the aesthetic.
The result is a one-of-a-kind property spread across four levels: Heaven, Sky, Earth and Sea. As the names suggest, the hillside to which the resort clings is pretty steep, meaning that chauffeured golf buggies are the way to get around. So far, so predictable. What sets it apart however is the ‘Nam Tram’, an audacious but brilliant funicular car to take guests from the beach up to the top of the resort.
A ride in it reveals some of the dining options available to guests, including the pan-Asian, Vietnamese and international cuisine available at ‘Citron’ in Heaven to the beachfront ‘Barefoot Café’. One building in particular stands out, a French colonial-style mansion known as ‘Maison 1888’. It’s home to the resort’s fine dining restaurant of the same name, run under the watchful eye of the legendary three Michelin-starred French chef Michel Roux.
For serious gourmands Roux needs little or no introduction. His most famous restaurant The Waterside Inn, nestled on the Thames in the culinary Mecca of Bray outside London, has retained three Michelin stars – for thirty years running. No restaurant anywhere in the world outside France can match this mind-bending achievement. You can see why the owners moved heaven and earth to convince the 73-year old Roux to open his first restaurant in the world outside the UK in Da Nang.
Roux was born in wartime France in the central region of Saône-et-Loire, not far from the Swiss border and the gastronomic heartland of Lyon. His father was a charcutier who took the family to Paris, where Michel followed his older brother Albert in becoming a pastry chef. After a stint cooking at the British Embassy in the French capital he joined the legendary Rothschild family where he cooked for Greta Garbo, amongst others, before founding the legendary Le Gavroche restaurant in London’s Mayfair in 1967. Charlie Chaplin and Ava Gardner were among those who came to the opening night.
Roux has always had a knack for making the rich and famous feel at ease. So much so that he also cooked regularly for Her Majesty The Queen, both at Windsor Castle on her birthday and at the Waterside Inn. As he explained to me later, when she dined there she was “Giddy with excitement because it was one of the few occasions in her life where she was able to choose from a menu like everyone else!”
The Roux brothers are almost famous for dragging British cuisine and restaurants out of what Michel called ‘The Dark Ages’ of the 1960’s. Indeed, chefs who have trained at their restaurants read like a Who’s Who of culinary greats, including Gordon Ramsay, Pierre Koffmann, Marco Pierre White and Marcus Wareing.
Back at Maison 1888, as you would expect from Monsieur Roux, his menu is unashamedly 100% French in both cuisine and service. Our evening begins in the ‘Buffalo Bar’, so called because the buffalo is a recurring theme in Vietnamese folklore and because one wearing a hat apparently signifies a drunken person.
The circular bar is impressive enough, but eyes are drawn upwards to the chandelier and collection of porcelain lining the far end of the room. A carefully-made champagne cocktail and a Mai Tai are our apéritifs of choice, soon accompanied by a silver platter of canapés featuring chicken liver mousse in crisp pastry, salmon with cream on a lime scone and a simple but excellent egg with potato.
For dinner we are shown into ‘La Veranda’. It’s an elegant room in black and white with mirrors, high stucco ceilings and vases of fresh flowers. I have to remember for a moment that, in common with the mansion and the rest of the resort, it was only built three years ago.
Head chef Stéphane Colliet is a Roux loyalist having spent years at The Waterside Inn before moving to Vietnam. Indeed, his menu features a number of choices marked as a ‘signature dish’ of his three-starred previous employer. We however forgo the numerous à la carte options and choose the seven course ‘Menu Exceptionnel’ at 2,700,000 Dong (US$125) and ask the manager and sommelier Simone Galiazzo to select some wines to accompany it.
After some good rye and milk breads, dinner starts with pan-fried foie gras served ‘Grenobloise’, in other words with croutons and brown butter, alongside a slice of caramelized watermelon and an orange dressing. A generous and substantial cut arrives, the liver typically rich and deep and luscious, cut through by the sweetness of the watermelon and orange. The croutons add interesting textural contrast to the canvas. It’s not the most delicate plating I’ve seen of foie gras, but the quality of the ingredients and execution are first class.
Pan-frying is also the preparation for the next course of scallops with octopus, over a mirepoix of celery and carrot accompanied by tamarind sauce. Stealing the show from a scallop is never easy, but here French technique comes into its own delivering arguably the finest version of the notoriously difficult octopus that I have come across. The delicate bite of the texture is exceptional and wholly unexpected, working in harmony with the plump scallop and the sweet and sour tang of tamarind.
A sorbet of sugar cane and dark rum arrives next to realign the pallet. It does just that and reminds that Roux’s great reputation was made on all things sweet, raising excitement and expectation for dessert.
For the main event I choose Iberico pork over the roasted Challans duck. The pork cut is ‘presa’, a thick but tender shoulder steak from the breed whose diet famously consists largely of acorns. Along with the exercise they get, it imparts a unique, complex flavor to the meat through marbled fat. A kohlrabi terrine, sweetcorn pureé and poivrade (a peppery, thick sauce based on a mirepoix and wine) again act as a great counterpoint and show techniques and faultless execution straight from the annals of classic French cooking. (Incidentally, Maison 1888 run cooking courses for guests, some even overseen by Monsieur Roux himself when he visits four times a year. It’s an experience I’d highly recommend.)
As always in France, fromage comes before dessert, savory before sweet. I was looking forward to choosing my cheeses, but at Maison 1888 the trio are pre-selected, a Roquefort, Savarin and a Comté. Although well-kept, the plating and cuts again perhaps lack a deftness of touch one would expect from such stellar kitchens.
Redemption comes quickly and firmly however in the form of dessert, thanks to the skills of the young patissier Stéphanie who demonstrated her sublime skills in our cooking class.
Layers of the thinnest, crispest pâte feuilletée (puff pastry) separate the perfectly-piped vanilla and caramel creams. It is a beautiful creation, accompanied by a passion fruit sorbet and accented by chocolate work on the plate and the signature Michel Roux chocolate medal.
Of course no meal at a Michel Roux restaurant would be complete without petits fours and again Stéphanie comes into her own with picture-perfect madeleines and macaroons, vibrant pâte de fruits, delicately-scented Turkish delight and more.
The service throughout was smooth and at times almost imperceptible, as it should be, while the wines were well-matched, if at times expensive by the glass for well-known labels such as Louis Jadot and Concha y Toro.
Maison 1888 may not have the cuisine-as-art presentation of some restaurants, nor cutting-edge innovations in techniques or obscure global ingredients. But that misses the point. That’s not its mission. When it comes to flawlessly-executed classical French cuisine, there’s simply no better place to experience it than in a Michel Roux restaurant.
Indeed, the great man himself happened to be enjoying lobster at the table behind us and graciously posed for photos with star-struck gastronomes. His has been a life most well-lived, imparting culinary appreciation and knowledge through his programs and books, while bringing joy to thousands of diners at his own restaurants and those that have benefited from his peerless experience. For that, amongst much more, merci chef.
Maison 1888, INTERCONTINENTAL DANANG SUN PENINSULA RESORT Bai Bac, Son Tra Peninsula,
Danang, Vietnam +84 511 393 8888 danang.intercontinental.com