March 14, 2008
10 Nguyen Thiep Street
District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Duck terrine with green pepper (70,000 VND)
Salad with smoked duck, jambon, egg and pate (75,000 VND)
Grilled sea bass filet with cream, lemon, and ginger sauce (85,000 VND)
Duck with orange sauce (105,000 VND)
Chocolate soufflé (85,000 VND)
Grand Marnier soufflé (85,000 VND)
When I first arrived in Saigon, I shunned at the idea of eating anything other than Vietnamese food. As I gradually started viewing Saigon as a metropolitan city rather than just the motherland, the idea of eating an ethnically varied diet seemed less contrived and more appealing.
Sensing my change in mind-set, The Astronomer gave me a series of non-Vietnamese dinners for my birthday. My first dinner was at Meric in Siem Reap, Cambodia. My second fish sauce-less outing was at a classic French restaurant in Saigon called Augustin.
Stepping into Augustin reminded me of the restaurants I used to frequent back East. Hardly larger than a shoebox, the tables at Augustin are set so close to one another that we had to awkwardly interrupt the couple next to us to request anything from the waiters.
After we placed our orders, a basket of warm French bread along with a slab of soft butter arrived at our table. Vietnamese baguettes are perfectly good, but bread with substantial innards are so much more satisfying, especially with a smear of high-quality butter.
For my appetizer, I ordered a “salad with smoked duck, jambon, egg and pate.” I was expecting a frisee salad of sorts with a runny egg and ducky accents, but what I received was a pile of forcemeats with slices of tomatoes, wedges of hard boiled eggs, and a few pieces of vinegary iceberg lettuce. Since when does a mound of cold cuts constitute a salad? The spicy slices of pepperoni were the highlight of a rather disappointing starter.
The Astronomer chose the “duck terrine with green pepper” at my request for his appetizer. I read a lot about terrines in Michael Ruhlman‘s chef series and have wanted to taste one since then. The duck terrine, which was served with slices of tomatoes, iceberg lettuce and pickled gherkins, turned out to be nothing more than pate. Sadly, it was the same pate as the one served on my salad. I can’t say where this terrine ranked since it was my first, but it struck me as a bit dry and too mild.
Two swings. Two misses.
Things started looking up when The Astronomer’s grilled sea bass filet with cream, lemon, and ginger sauce arrived. Although too rich for my taste, the dish was exactly what The Astronomer wanted this evening. The filet was served with steamed green beans, carrots and potatoes.
Just as things were starting to go swimmingly, my duck with orange sauce arrived way overcooked—we’re talking rubbery meat territory. For the first time in my dining career, I sent a dish back to the kitchen. The waitress explained to me that the locally raised duck had to be cooked thoroughly due to the risk of bird flu. Although probably not the smartest decision I’ve ever made, I asked that the chef please prepare the duck rare.
My second duck with orange sauce arrived perfectly rare and succulent as can be. The Astronomer and I ooh’d and ah’d as we smothered the tender meat in a citrus bath and brought it to our mouths. We both agreed that if we did contract bird flu, this was a great way to go. The duck was served with some bland carrots, green beans and frites.
For dessert, The Astronomer and I indulged in the dreamiest chocolate soufflé ever. The edges of the soufflé were gorgeously caramelized, while the insides were velvety smooth and unbelievably light and airy. Usually chocolate desserts leave me thirsty and hyper, but this one was subtly decadent.
The soufflé was so extraordinary that we returned two weeks later to sample the Grand Marnier version. With just a touch of orange liquor, the Grand Marnier soufflé was just as good as the chocolate one.