The C-note pho hits all the right notes
It’s hard to imagine a dish more humble than pho—a peasant soup of stewed bones a la the French pot-au-feu combined with Chinese-style fan noodles and topped with fresh herbs. You can still find the rare bowl for less than USD1, but only at a mom-and-pop cart tucked way down a local alleyway somewhere. Even abroad, Vietnam’s most famous export is seen as cheap, fast food when someone wants to go “ethnic.”
Peter Cuong Nguyen, chef-owner of Anan Restaurant (89 Ton That Dam, D1), is looking to change that long- standing perception with his USD100 pho. “If French or Japanese cuisine can be labelled ‘fine dining’, why can’t Vietnamese? I can make a bowl of pho for USD2 but I can also make it for USD100 to give people who’ve eaten pho a million times elsewhere a completely new experience,” he says in his restaurant tucked inside a wet market just steps from Bitexco Tower. “After all, what is the worth of a dish? It’s all variable, like the worth of a person. What we’re doing here is giving people something beyond what they know. We’re using luxurious ingredients like Wagyu and black truffle, but beyond that, we’re creating an experience. How many times have you spent USD100 on a meal and not remembered it at all? I guarantee you’ll remember this pho.”
Cocktail Phojito – The interior
Like the rest of Anan’s menu, which cleverly takes Vietnamese street food favorites apart only to re-tool them using French cooking techniques and premium ingredients, Chef Peter’s USD100 pho pays homage to one of Vietnam’s original fusion dishes, with the French contributing the beef broth, the Chinese adding handmade noodles, and the Vietnamese topping it all off with fresh herbs. Chef Peter’s pho starts off with an incredibly clear broth, akin to a French consommé, achieved by a rigorous treatment of the beef bones, soaking, blanching, washing and cooking them for 12 hours. On the second day, seven types of beef are individually prepared including beef ribs cooked sous-vide and Australian Wagyu cooked medium- rare so as not to muddy the broth with its juices. The clarity of the broth can be deceptive, however. Thanks to long cooking times and a secret combination of ingredients (which over a glass of wine, Chef Peter lets slip is actually a combination of chicken, pork and beef bones), the broth packs incredible punch. “You can’t see density in liquid, but when you eat it, you can feel it,” explains Chef Peter. “What gives density to this pho is the beef marrow and all the connective tissue. High density means high flavor.”
Famed 18th century French epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat Savarin defined the concept of “gastronomy” as “the knowledge and understanding of all that relates to man as he eats. Its purpose is to ensure the conservation of men, using the best food possible.” Long the exclusive domain of French cuisine, Chef Peter sets out to elevate pho to the level of gastronomy by tapping in to the physiology of taste.
Lemongrass Pork Chop
We’re in NHAUNHAU, a brand new space two floors above Anan. Swathed in custom-designed, deep emerald ceramic tiles, the lounge is all about seriously sexy curves—the wavy walls, the rounded edges of the tables and gorgeous blond wood bar, the honeycomb-tiled floor, even down to the circular mother-of-pearl accents on the chopsticks. Nostalgic music from the Saigon of the 60s and 70s plays off a vintage turntable producing crystal-clear sound. Everything about the space is designed to be a highly curated experience for the senses. There are only chopsticks on the tables, a deliberate effort to force diners to slow down and savor their food (although cutlery is available on request). Dishes are meant to be shared family-style, where diners can pick and choose what they like from each dish and are encouraged to socialize to find out what the other is tasting.
The pho set comes out and there’s a precise order in which everything should be eaten. First is a small bowl of pho broth with a poached egg, a slice of melt-in-your-mouth Australian Wagyu and a wonderfully earthy, intense punch of black truffle to encapsulate the entire pho experience writ small, leaving you wanting more, much more. Next, comes a hunk of Australian beef bone, cooked in the broth and then browned on a grill and sliced in half to reveal the exquisite marrow inside. Fat-be-damned, the luscious “beef butter” pairs brilliantly with crispy sesame crackers.
Next, it’s time to dig into the main pho course, a big stone bowl of steaming broth with six types of beef. A side dish contains slices of Australian Wagyu, to be dipped in the broth and then into a paste of Italian black truffle and truffle oil. With so many distinctly-flavored components, each bite is different. Each bite is divine.
Bahn Xeo Tacos
Laudably, Chef Peter showers the same love and attention to the rest of his menu. You don’t have to be a millionaire (even in dong) to savor his whimsical yet sophisticated takes on humble street food dishes. Grilled rice paper typical of Dalat gets a makeover, topped with smoky cheese and delightfully chewy snails. Banh xeo (sizzling crepe) batter finds new life as crispy taco shells, filled with shrimp in a spicy mayo and peanut sauce as well as tasty bo kho beef stew, all to be washed down with a phojito, a refreshingly innovative cocktail inspired by the flavors of pho, complete with a charred stick of cinnamon, or a tra da, a take on the ubiquitous iced tea, here with Dalat black tea and honey with a kick of gin and lime soda.
Escargot Dalat Pizza
Anan and its newest addition of NHAUNHAU plays with contrasts, mixing the modern with the traditional. Whether it’s a Dalat pizza for a little over USD5 or a bowl of pho you’ll remember for the rest of your life at USD100, Chef Peter wants to elevate eating into a genuine experience for everyone. “When you’re a crazy rich Asian, you can get away with wearing whatever you want. Food is moving in that direction, too, being relaxed and casual,” he says. “It can be really good food without being formal and fussy. It’s the new type of luxury.”
Images by Vy Lam