From galettes to cider, sample the cuisine of Brittany right here in Saigon..
The humble pancake, one of the oldest dishes in the world, isn’t usually the first that comes to mind when speaking of haute cuisine. Simple, inelegant, and fairly easy to make, it’s the one generally unremarkable meal that’s found in almost every culinary culture. There are, however, certain places on earth where pancakes serve as a modest base for extraordinary poetries of cooking – Vietnam, to an extent, being one of them. Yet even the delicious banh xeo, for all its crispiness and fresh herbal garnishes, cannot hold a candle to the sheer diversity of the Breton galette, the buckwheat version of the French crêpe that is the staple of provincial Brittany. Galettes serve as a clean slate for a whole realm of possible recipes – but with the rich, pungent tastes of Breton cuisine generally little-known outside of the region, they’re most often seen as curiosities buried in the lost folds of French bistro menus.
Whether it’s out of a sense of chest- beating nationalism or just plain homesickness, La Creperie’s (17 Le Thanh Ton, D1) mission to popularize the fine fare of the Breton motherland in Asia has been largely welcomed, and the Ho Chi Minh City restaurant has proved successful enough for the franchise to expand into two locations in Cambodia this year. Part of the winning formula is the eatery’s almost fussy dedication to quality – while importing cereals here may seem counterintuitive, La Crêperie’s buckwheat is brought in direct from home so as to achieve the most authentic taste – as is the cider, for which the region is otherwise famous. Likewise, while the French-sailor-themed décor may strike experienced diners as seeming a tad kitsch (even the wine racks have prows), this too is a quintessential reflection of the character of Brittany, inescapably framed by its wild coastline – there are more lighthouses standing on Breton crags than there are in the rest of France put together, and it’s seafood more than anything else that dominates the region’s cuisine. The lighthouse is the emblem of the restaurant; images of lighthouses struck by crashing waves hang throughout the venue, and with the lower walls lined in brick like rustic French homesteads, you’re within the right frame of reference for sitting down to a meal deserving of the region.
Questions of authenticity aside, La Crêperie’s menu does make some concessions to the local Vietnamese culinary sphere. The Brittany rolls (VND95,000) are an obvious tribute to Vietnam’s spring rolls, made out of rolled galettes and sliced into bite-sized portions. The similarity ends there, however, with the range of fillings (beef & spinach, caramel pork, and spicy chicken) served warm and chewy with a chunky consistency that takes on a rich barbecue tone from the near-crispy shell pan-fried in butter – eat them quickly, as they’re at their best when they’re warm, and don’t forget to use the dipping sauces.
The range of galettes serving as mains offers a microcosm of the breadth of Breton cooking, and the inherent intensity of tastes for which the cuisine is properly known are exploited in full. For a more Western palate, the La Bigoudène (VND185,000) with its crispy edges folded into a neat square over its ham, emmental cheese, egg, and salad filling, is a classic dish served drizzled with a bracing French dressing – it’s somewhat reminiscent of a banh xeo, but closer in taste to the somewhat more pedestrian croque madame. For a more exotic variety, the La Piano (VND245,000) is more odiferous with its rich, gamey smoked salmon, spinach, egg, cream, and mustard – a combination that should be particularly pleasing for local diners but which should equally delight non-Asian patrons with finely-honed tastes.
Dessert is pancakes again, although these are the true flour-based crêpes more familiar to fans of French cuisine, although again leaning towards the richly resonant flavors associated with Brittany. Crêpes taken with ice cream and chocolate sauce are pleasant enough, although diners would be well-rewarded with a Le Baromètre crêpe (VND95,000) served with apple, salted butter, and caramel. A complex dish characterized by an understated, slightly burnt butterscotch flavor brought on by the caramel and with a hint of cinnamon, the apples are not too sweet and cooked at their best, set off by the subtle salty taste of the base.
Take a meal at La Crêperie like a true Breton with cider in a bowl (VND95,000) – the restaurant serves imported Val de Rance fresh from a northeastern brewery near Mont Saint Michel – or try a simple homemade lemonade (VND45,000) with its strong, definite flavors to match those of the dishes – served with local honey and tasting just like grandma made it, no matter where she’s from. That there is the essence and purpose of this restaurant – no matter how familiar you may be with this particular mode of cooking, La Crêperie is home-style food. As the venue’s current manager Mickael Guego puts it, “This is all just typical Brittany, this is my home right here, in Vietnam. every week, every Friday evening, my mother cooks this for me.” In representing honest-to-goodness Breton culture here in Saigon, La Crêperie offers a window to the region that’s just hard to find in other venues serving more generic French cuisine.
Images by Ngoc Tran