… and why are his burgers so delicious
Marcel Gourmet Burger (132 Calmette, D1,) occupies a small space on a busy street between a construction site and a Vietnamese spa, but step foot inside and you’ll swear you’ve fallen asleep and woken up in a Wes Anderson film. Subtle pink and orange furniture with natural wood accents are offset by a wall of green plants, and classic French pop music gives voice to the rich smells emanating from the small windowed-off kitchen.
While the dining room is relatively small, a large upholstered bench with modular tables can accommodate several small groups, while smaller tables are perfect for couples. Comfortable, inviting and unique: a Parisian café in Saigon.
Our drinks, Tê Tê’s Draught White Ale (VND90,000, 330ml) were accompanied by Alex Halbers, a longtime Saigon resident and the owner and visionary behind Marcel Gourmet Burger. Earlier this year, Alex hosted two old friends who operate a traditional Bar à Manger in Paris. Over the course of several festive evenings and one morning of earnest calculations, the idea for a Parisian café in Saigon was conceived and refined, and ultimately the three threw their lot in together and Marcel was born. According to Alex, in France the name Marcel is associated with the older generation, maybe a grandfather, and you go to his house and he brings you some special dish that he just made, fresh from the oven. “Marcel’s house,” the friendly old man who lives next door who has you over for a home-cooked meal.
At its core, Marcel is about French, gourmet burgers made with homemade ingredients. Nowhere is this concept better embodied than Le Signature Burger (VND180,000), the clear favorite among patrons. Marcel starts with an Australian grass-fed beef patty and raclette cheese. This savory and creamy cheese mixes with sweet balsamic caramelized onions and crunchy gherkin relish for a meticulously-balanced flavor and texture palette. Add cognac pepper sauce, tomato and lettuce, and set it on a homemade brioche bun, and you have a sumptuous, dynamic burger unlike anything else you’re likely to find in Vietnam. “And here, for the customer who know their stuff,” says Alex as he set down a plate of Allumettes Fries (VND40,000). Crunchy and flavorful, they are accompanied by a butterless béarnaise that Marcel Gourmet has developed to offset (only slightly) the decadence of the rest of your meal.
Le Spicy Pork Burger – Le Crumbly Fish Burger
Next, we were treated to Le Spicy Pork Burger (VND140,000), a portion of slow-cooked pork shoulder with Mykes mild cheddar, spicy mayo and coleslaw, along with Le Crumbly Fish Burger (VND120,000), a fillet of deep fried panga with housemade tartar sauce, red onions and arugula served with a slice of fresh lime. In both cases, the flavors (spicy/savory and sweet/sour, respectively) and textures (crunchy and creamy on both counts) are carefully measured and balanced. Both also came on the same homemade brioche bun, which, as far as this writer is concerned, is the golden-toasted standard of burger casings.
Marcel’s delectable quality is no accident. Alex worked with a team of French interior designers to craft the ambiance, and spent three months working with a French chef to develop the menu. Speaking with Alex, its apparent how much thought and care went into developing each burger. Le Signature Burger, for example, was inspired by ski resorts in the French Alps: raclette, or “melted cheese,” is a favorite cold-weather snack typically served with a baked potato that’s otherwise difficult to enjoy in the heat of Saigon. With a steady supply of French gourmet ingredients and a rooftop herb garden next door, Alex plans to continue experimenting and innovating with occasional specials, as inspiration dictates.
Flaming Wings – Crème Brulee
Satisfied but not satiated, we continued with the Flaming Wings (VND110,000, six pieces), crispy chicken with tangy asian dressing, honey and a dusting of spring onions and sesame seeds. This delightful meal ended the way any gourmet experience should, with a classic Crème Brulee (VND80,000). Marcel’s traditional take on the French dessert is just what were looking for, and perfect for sharing.
Driving to Marcel Gourmet Burger, I struggled to imagine what vacancy it meant to occupy in the throng of burger-and-fries upstarts in Ho Chi Minh City. The answer, I now realize, is in the name: gourmet. This is not just a fresh take on an old favorite; it’s one connoisseur’s personal interpretation, seriously considered and painstakingly executed. The attention to detail and pursuit of excellence is apparent in every bite, and the flavors are bold and unique. Marcel Gourmet surely stands apart, and I’ll be happy to stand in line when people start to notice.