Fusion is the core of Red Door Restaurant’s culture – and its success.
The fusion of tastes between Vietnamese and European influences, the architectural fusion of chic minimalist design with traditional Hue style. The fusion of chemistry and cuisine, which has made Ngo Duc Hien an artist as much as a restaurateur. The fusion of contrasting flavors – sweet and sour; and the endless quest for fusion of contradictory textures in a single dish.
Red Door Restaurant (400/8 Le Van Sy, D3; Facebook: reddoorrestaurant) is full of surprises from beginning to end. The first is discovering the urban oasis of Hien’s parents’ former home in an uncommonly wide suburban alley in the heart of District 3, accessed through a tunnel, the only hint that this was once a gated community in an era long past.
Hien’s parents hail from Hue and the distinctive red wooden door from the hem is original, creating both a grand, imposing entrance as much as a recognizable local landmark. Step inside and you find yourself in a stoned garden with a giant tree and pond around which the two-story home, now entirely a restaurant, is built, affording an open indoor-outdoor feel. There are private function rooms, open decks and the main dining room on the ground floor. With lots of polished concrete and bleached timber, the design is minimalist and modern, yet warm and friendly, and surprisingly removed from the noise and bustle of the city.
Red Door took Hien and his business partner, professional marketer Trang Do a year to create from conception to opening. After three months, Red Door has found its feet and the team is ready to make its name.
“People have undervalued Vietnamese food,” explains Hien. “We wanted to create a nice, airy, warm ambiance serving experiential Vietnamese food.” An American- born Viet Kieu, Hien studied at Harvard University and is a qualified biochemist. That’s where the fusion of food and science comes into play. But don’t be deterred by the almost scientific zeal he has for his cuisine: it explains why some dishes on
this extraordinary and unique menu were deconstructed and reconstructed – some for months on end – before the recipes were finalized. “Food is an experiment.”
The Vietnamese names on Red Door’s menu may seem familiar, but the descriptions quickly expose the truth. Have you ever considered pho separated from its broth, for example? Reinterpretation indeed. Or how about mi hai san (seafood noodle) but made from an udon noodle more than 1.8 meters long and colored with squid ink – Japanese, Italian and Vietnamese influences in a single bowl. Hien tosses it with garlic to enhance the flavor, then mixes it with shrimp cooked two ways and two different sauces.
Another example is his rolls. “Each region of Vietnam has 10 to 20 wraps. Here, we thought ‘OK, let’s come up with three different versions’ and we chose one each to depict north, central and south Vietnam.” For the north, he chose fish with galangal, for central, morning glory and yam with sliced pork belly, interpreting a Royal Hue style dish “in our own way.” For the south: steamed shrimp, pork belly and noodles.
There is much more to the mixing and matching than the menu reveals. Hien’s chemistry genius makes for much experimentation and it’s not that he wants to keep his recipes secret, more that he relishes challenging customers to guess the ingredients. Few can. Another hallmark of the restaurant is a commitment to ensuring everything on the plate is edible: there are no garnishes on the dishes for decorative purposes.
Red Door’s menu will change each month – several dishes substituted to ensure return guests always have something new to try.
With a menu as adventurous as Red Door’s, we needed advice. Even to the fussiest of eaters, the range of food here is overwhelming. Every dish seems to cry out ‘pick me!’ So we tried an array of dishes, more than an average dining couple will likely order, but it allowed Hien to showcase his favorite creations.
Red Door is a superb dining experience, a place where the chef’s experimentation becomes a foodie’s adventure. The menu may seem familiar at first glance for those who regularly enjoy Vietnamese food, but the execution is truly unique, mouthwatering and will appeal to intrigued locals and expats looking for something completely different from the norm. A textural, gastronomic journey of unrivaled fusion.
Goi Sen (Lotus Salad) VND145,000
Hien uses all parts of the lotus plant, pickled lotus stem and lotus root, mixed with lotus seed dressing then topped with flower petals, with sesame seeds nestled on crispy wonton flakes on top. Traditionally, this is cooked with fish sauce; Hien uses mayo and the most delicious meaty, fresh prawns we have tasted in an age. It was a fresh, finely balanced dish, sweet and slightly salty at once.
Cuon Chuoi (Banana Roll) VND95,000
This dish comprises banana and shredded coconut meat mixed into a paste and rolled in rice paper, and served with pork tenderloin, which is crunchy on the surface – yin and yang on a single plate. The two components perfectly complement each other and – as advised by Hien – we ate the morsels together for maximum sensory impact.
Cha oc nuong ( Snails) VND155,000
Snails are usually way outside my comfort zone, but the description was compelling: grilled escargot paste – snail meat ground into a paste then mixed with more snail julienned for a dynamic blend of texture – molded into bamboo skewered squares and grilled. The result is like a cubic satay, the snail meat moorish and fleshy, a nutty texture and again a delicious flavor. Smoky and meaty, it was a little like lamb. Served with pickled vegetables in authentic Vietnamese style.
Dau hu say ( Drunken Tofu) VND95,000
This dish is influenced by drunken chicken of Chinese cuisine. Hien spent ages experimenting with soaking the tofu in rice wine for varying lengths of time before he felt the balance of flavor was just right and to ensure the right texture when cooked. The result is silky smooth tofu fried with a slim coating of batter and dressed with tiny morsels of dragon fruit, mint, peppers, fruits and minced pork. I’ve always considered tofu a food you eat when you don’t want to taste anything – in other words never. But Hien’s enthusiasm for his creation was compelling and I was glad of the adventure. The contrasting texture of silky and crunch combined with that distinctive sake infusion and a hint of spice was alluring.
Banh Duc (Duc Cake) VND115,000
Banh duc has featured on Vietnamese family dinner tables for generations. But “jazzed up” as Hien puts it, this version has pumpkin and a hint of cinnamon. Served in pairs, one cake is steamed, the other deep fried very quickly, maintaining its soft texture inside and not the least bit oily. Glutinous, yet not dry or chewy. It seems familiar, yet distinctively different.
Bo Kho (Beef Stew) VND205,000
Beef stew is really a misnomer, as this dish is more like a beef fillet with a rich flavorsome sauce. Described as one of Vietnam’s first French fusion dishes, a local take on a beef bourguignon with Vietnamese spices and apple. Yes, apple: don’t be surprised it works. It’s slightly sour and acts as a palate cleanser. It’s all topped with a curved slice of crispy baked French bread and a whole marinated cinnamon-coated crunchy baby carrot. The beef was tender, the serving generous, and the sauce so moorish, you want the bread to soak it up to ensure none of the sauce goes to waste.
Thit Kho Tau (Caramelized Pork) VND175,000
A Tet favorite all over Vietnam, thit kho tau is pork belly slow cooked in coconut juice, sliced and pan-fried. But they sure don’t serve it this way – with purple yam rice and trai coc green apple jelly which, a little acidic, balances the sweet belly fat flavor. In one bite “it seems familiar, but different,” my Vietnamese companion marveled when trying the dish she would spend a whole weekend savoring just a week later at New Year.
Panna Cotta Mit ( Panna Cotta with Jackfruit) VND85,000
Vietnam meets Italy: and the result was a divine end to a sumptuous feast. With a creamy, super soft mouth feel, the jackfruit adds a piquant edge Italians would never embrace, all offset by a raspberry coulis.
*Images by Neil Featherstone