A Michelin-star experience at L’Escale By Thierry Drapeau

A shiver of delight struck food lovers in Asia when Michelin released its first restaurant guide to Bangkok just a few months ago. However, in a case of “so close, yet so far”, a Michelin-starred meal for gastro-minded Saigonese still meant getting on a plane to Bangkok, Singapore or Hong Kong.

“Maybe within 5-10 years,” says Herve Beal, proprietor of New York Steakhouse Saigon as well as New York Steakhouse Phnom Penh and Ocean Prime Phnom Penh, of Saigon’s prospects for the world’s most famous dining guide. “The Vietnamese have started to become educated about food; they know what Michelin is. Perhaps 15 years ago was too early for a Michelin-starred restaurant to open here, but now it’s time.”

He’s speaking of his newest venture, L’Escale By Thierry Drapeau (90 Quoc Huong, D2), a collaboration with Chef Drapeau, the current holder of two Michelin stars for his restaurant La Chabotterie in Vendée, western France.

Ever since the two began working together on guest appearances at some of Saigon’s top hotels more than 10 years ago, the team of Beal and Drapeau have ruminated on the idea of opening their own fine dining establishment. “I would never have opened a restaurant like this without a Michelin-starred chef,” says Beal. “With Thierry having two stars, that’s even better. He’s not a chef-consultant, he’s actually part owner and is here for 10 days every two months tweaking the menu, identifying trends and working with the team.”

Opened in December, L’Escale promises to faithfully transport Chef Drapeau’s highly-regarded dishes from sleepy Saint-Sulpice-le-Verdon inspired by the surrounding French coast and countryside to the leafy suburbs of Saigon.

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Halibut in champagne cream

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Appetizers

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“Everything is exactly the same” maintains Chef Drapeau, overseeing the meticulously-kept back of house in his intimate, 7-table namesake restaurant. A black-suited maître d’ welcomes guests to the playfully chic restaurant, swathed in sumptuous pinks and greys and featuring whimsical food / fashion sketches by famed Dior illustrator René Gruau. “We’ve even found a local woman in Long An who can butcher our ducks exactly the way they’re done in France,” adds Beal. “She drives them to the restaurant on her motorbike, but other than that, the quality is the same. We had a caviar menu here in March and the same menu in France.”

“Maybe the only difference is that the diners at La Chabotterie take longer to eat,” laughs sous chef Pham Hung Cuong, who along with a Vietnamese maître d’ spent two months training at Chef Drapeau’s restaurant in France. “What impressed me most was how methodical Chef Drapeau is, even when it’s full service. His approach to cooking is extremely creative. He comes up with new dishes, not just reproducing them.”

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Roasted duck with raspberries

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Chicken egg stuffed with truffle

More importantly, Saigon diners can rest assured that nothing gets lost in translation as Chef Drapeau re-creates his signature terroir et mer (soil and sea) cuisine at L’Escale. Showcasing his flair for earthy flavors married with impeccable technique, the Roasted duck with raspberries combines sweet, earthy and tart flavors, including a playful black olivestuffed raspberry ravioli, while his delicate Antarctic halibut swims in a light-as-air champagne cream made with his very own vintage of Duval-Leroy champagne. Likewise, the Chicken egg stuffed with truffle is a standout, the black gold oozing out of a lightly poached egg served over mushrooms two ways, with an earthy, intensely flavorful mushroom cream soup on the side.

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Scallops in jasmine oil

Chef Drapeau’s renowned artistic flourish shines in his Scallops in jasmine oil starter, bright bursts of carrots three ways and a squid ink crisp combining to recreate a vibrant underwater scene.

Most of the set menus include a trip to the hallowed cheese cellar, a glorious ode to French and English cheeses, while dessert spans from decadent, in the form of a very rich Chocolate bar with crunchy salty caramel and light yuzu cream, to the demure, a Creamy iced nougat with nods to Vietnamese terroir in a mango marmalade and creamy Dalat yogurt sorbet.

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Iced nougat

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Chocolate bar with chocolate sorbet

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Trio of sweets

While a Michelin guide for Saigon may for now be a pie in the sky, a Michelin-starred dining experience at L’Escale is certainly ripe for the taking.

A three-course set menu is available for lunch at VND850,000 per person, as well as 4-, 5-, and 7-course menus for lunch and dinner. Dishes can also be ordered a la carte.

Images by Vy Lam

Header image: Assorted cheeses