A Saigon mainstay returns to its roots with Indonesian rijsttafel.
I get nervous when I see flags on a menu. It’s often a sign of an establishment either catering to tourists who neither speak English nor the local language or of a diluted menu that lacks focus, a culinary jack of all trades but master of none.
The menu at La Fenetre Soleil (44 Ly Tu Trong, D1) looks like the phone directory of the United Nations. There’s a Japanese corner, vestiges of the restaurant’s Japanese-Vietnamese fusion origins catering to Japanese tour groups, a French niçoise salad, Italian pasta, Mexican tacos, American burgers and Thai mango with sticky rice. The restaurant itself takes its name after a lovely old bay window from its original location now framing the bar area, although French speakers may have fun debating the grammatical accuracy of “La Fenetre Soleil.”
The venue is equally schizophrenic. Come on a weekday afternoon and you’ll likely find freelancers feverishly working on laptops at one of a handful of mismatched tables set up in the sunny corridor that runs around the perimeter of the main restaurant space, an upscale bohemian combination of exposed brick walls, well-worn wood floors, bookcases and a musical stage. Another group of friends might be chillaxing on the oversized corner sofa. And a family of tourists could be enjoying a late lunch at one of the long granite tables, pouring over matching Lonely Planets deciding on where to go next. The space takes on a completely different personality in the evenings. Chandeliers give way to disco balls. On certain nights, someone will be softly playing the baby grand in the corner or crooning out jazz standards with a live band. On another night, tables and chairs are pushed aside for sultry salsa and on Sunday evenings, the city’s musicians rock up for jam sessions in exchange for free beer. (See video clips at La Fenetre’s Facebook page.)
Being all things to all people ― a cozy hangout spot, a trendy night club, a kitchen that serves up meals from around the globe ― shouldn’t work, but it oddly does at La Fenetre Soleil. Its 14 year history when so many other lofty restaurants have come and gone is testament to the success of giving people what they want ― a taste of home ― wherever home may be.
Home Sweet Home
Ironically, La Fenetre Soleil goes home for its newest addition to the dinner menu, back to the Indonesian roots of owner Cinta Wijayanti, in the form of rijsttafel (VND280,000 per person, minimum of two orders). Meaning “rice table” (pronounced , “RACE-tah-fell”), rijsttafel is essentially an Indonesian feast made up of anywhere from seven to a hundred dishes, showcasing the best of the 300 or so distinct native ethnic groups making up the archipelago. Meant to celebrate (and show off) the bounty of the country, the concept originated during the more than 300 years of Dutch colonialism, and is more popular in the Netherlands than it is in Indonesia itself.
“The influence of Indonesian cuisine on the Dutch one is huge,” says Mark Schiefelbein, food blogger at DutchGrub. “There are Indonesian restaurants and tokos [Asian food shops] all over Amsterdam, kip (chicken) saté is considered a typical Dutch dish and many tourists visiting the Netherlands end up having rijsttafel when looking for authentic Dutch food.”
Traditionally, rijsttafel isn’t confined to any predetermined set of dishes, and La Fenetre Soleil’s version has eight, starting with a trio of appetizers including perkedel jagung, sweet corn fritters with shrimp, and the excellent rissoles, something akin to a croquette, stuffed with cubes of chicken and French beans in a béchamel sauce, rolled into a crepe and deep fried. The standout appetizer for me was the sate ayam, grilled chicken on skewers served with a rich peanut sauce (which the Dutch also call “satay”), accompanied by discs of lontong, compressed, slightly mushy rice cooked in banana leaves, ideal for mopping up the satay. Where Vietnamese cuisine relies on quickly cooked food and tasty sauces, Indonesian cuisine often marinates the meat for longer, allowing the flavor to permeate the proteins.
Mains are represented by beef rendang, a tasty stew with large chunks of beef cooked over low heat for hours until the coconut milk practically reduces down to oil and a trio of dishes meant to be eaten together: sambal goreng kentang, a sweet, savory, spicy potato dish cooked in coconut milk and flavored with sambal, the ubiquitous sauce of chili peppers and shrimp paste, opor ayam, a mild chicken curry with tofu and egg, and sayur labu siam, a coconut milk-based stew thickened with tomatoes and featuring chayote (a gourd known as xu xu in Vietnamese). Pecel, a steamed medley of vegetables with a side of peanut sauce, completes the feast.
La Fenetre Soleil’s rijsttafel doesn’t include a dessert, but one can be ordered a la carte. We tried the dadar gulung (included in the lunch set menu at VND180,000), shredded coconut cooked in brown sugar and wrapped in a pandan flavored spongy crepe and the more interesting pisang bakar (VND60,000), grilled bananas topped with shredded cheddar cheese and chocolate sprinkles, a pleasantly odd sweet and salty combination along the lines of salted caramel.
“Gezellig” is an untranslatable Dutch word conveying the idea of “quaint” or “cozy” but almost always attached to the company you’re with. And if there’s ever a meal that’s guaranteed to make you feel “gezellig,” it’s La Fenetre Soleil’s rijsttafel, a feast to be shared amongst friends, no matter where you call home.
Images by Ngoc Tran