Updated  
May, 11 2014 17:16:42

Bistro goes back to French tradition

Melting hearts: House-made potato gnocchi make this gratin a specialty to savour.

You won't find any fusion creations at L'Embellie, a quiet spot in the former French Quarter that specialises in the light, pesto-inflected dishes of the chef's native Nice. Elisabeth Rosen samples the fare.

The server spoons out a generous flourish of pesto, then ladles over it a clear broth flecked with zucchini, carrot and red pepper. Made from fresh Da Lat basil, the olive oil-based condiment evokes Mediterranean sunshine. But adjust your expectations: we're in France, not Italy.

L'Embellie, which opened a few weeks ago on a quiet street in the former French Quarter, offers a firmly traditional French dining experience. (Those seeking Asian fusion or creative flourishes should stop reading now.) Husband-and-wife owners Stephane and Christine Rejasse turned a colonial house built in the 1920s into a quiet sanctuary, with only ten tables and double-lined windows that shut out the sound of the street. The goal is to create a shrine of sorts to the French meal, a place where one can linger for hours over a glass of wine or an espresso, and it works almost too well: the silence is so thorough, it can at first be disconcerting.

Chef Emmanuel Gaudin comes from Nice in southern France, where the cuisine is strongly influenced by nearby Italy. Pesto is everywhere: drizzled over the squares of vegetable omelet that greet diners, adding colour to a side salad, the main ingredient in that vegetable pistou. Dishes like potato gnocchi and shellfish in garlic sauce bear more resemblance to Italian fare than the creamy French preparations diners might be accustomed to; the only difference between this pistou and Italian minestrone is that one contains coco beans and the other contains pasta. "As we used to say in Nice, if you throw a stone across the river, it ends up in Italy," Gaudin says.

Interior: The French colonial house is carefully restored.

L'Embellie

Address: 49 Trieu Viet Vuong

Tel.: 0439430717

Price Range: VND300,000-700,000

Comment: Traditional French food, emphasising dishes from Nice

The a la carte menu also offers sumptuous classical fare, like braised guinea fowl with morel sauce (VND540,000) and rabbit "a la royale" stuffed with foie gras in a red wine and chocolate sauce (VND580,000). But the lighter Nice dishes are clearly the restaurant's specialty. The set lunch menu (VND290,000 for two courses, VND360,000 for three) changes every week; on a recent afternoon, it included that pistou, as well as wild boar terrine, grilled flank steak and potato gnocchi baked in a hearty gratin.

Order the gnocchi if you have the chance. Made in house, they fall texturally somewhere between pasta and mashed potato, so soft they practically melt. Topped with gooey parmesan, the gratin is top-notch comfort food, even if the red wine gravy can sometimes veer so sweet it verges on syrup.

Most of the ingredients are sourced in Viet Nam, except for the more exotic meats, like rabbit and guinea fowl. So, too, is the decor. Sturdy wooden chairs and tables come from a nearby shop specialising in bespoke furniture; a local tailor embroidered the tablecloths; the rough still lifes and Degas-like portraits that line the walls can be found at a small gallery in Ha Noi. Walls painted a sunny yellow surround the original ceramic floor tiles, still intact after decades of wear.

Equal care went into crafting the menu, especially the wine list, which includes both familiar and little-known names accompanied by Rejasse's careful descriptions. Six are served by the glass, like the Menseng Sauvignon from small producer Brumont Gros (VND120,000/glass), which proves exceptionally floral and far less dry than typical Sauvignon.

No matter how full you are, finish your meal with the ile flottante, which literally means "floating island". A cloud of beaten egg white floats in chilled custard cream, sprinkled with toasted almonds and crunchy bits of homemade caramel. It's the lightest possible way to end on a sweet note. — VNS

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