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Fun flavours on the tip of many tongues

Update: October, 26/2014 - 21:39
Tasteful editing: Chef Yu Masuda and restaurant manager prepare dishes behind the ground floor bar. The menu spans at least three cuisines to satisfy Tay Ho's international crowd. — VNS Photos Lucy Sexton

A restaurant with a French name and a Japanese chef avoids both nations and serves sensible combinations of Italian, Chinese and Spanish cuisines. Lucy Sexton is pleasantly surprised.

PePe La Poule, located at the very end of the Quang An jetty, is in the dead-centre of the Ho Tay (West Lake) and in the middle of a myriad of culinary influences.

The owner and head chef of the six-month old restaurant, Yu Masuda, 34, hails from Tokyo, but he doesn't cook Japanese food. The French named restaurant doesn't serve French cuisine either. Well, did he come to Viet Nam to cook Vietnamese food? No.

Masuda prefers to fool customers with contradictions. He lets flavours, design and nationalities come together in an organic fashion rather than from any contrived vision of what things should be.

The extensive menu, at a glance, seems perhaps unedited and overgrown, like a hedge in need of shearing. Spanish inspired tapas, like shrimp fried in anchovy butter with toasted baguette for dipping, can be combined with Chinese dumplings or a spicy beef muscle stew.

The soup and pasta section is distinctly Italian - spaghetti vongole bianco with clams or a crab onion soup with truffle oil - and will satisfy taste buds looking for rich flavours. By the end of the menu you have read your way through a maze of curry stews and Chinese noodles like spicy pork and sesame ramen. The task of selecting and ordering feels almost onerous.

I ask where the Japanese influence can be found, Masuda, who is busy preparing dishes in front of me, claims, "there is nothing Japanese in the menu."

Autumnal treats: Pumpkin chiffon cake and a cup-of-joe satisfy sweet tooths.

But, once the food arrives on the plate and on your palate, the well-balanced and fun combination of flavours and cultures overturns initial trepidations. Italian, Spanish and Chinese fare has never made so much sense together.

Even though Masuda claims there is no Japanese influence in the food, the mastery behind the careful editing of flavors is the Japanese thread (aka soba noodle) that holds everything together. Not only is there a balance of flavour but also a balance of tradition and creativity.

The vegetable salad of roasted peppers, onions and heirloom tomatoes is fresh and the vegetables are packed with flavour. Vinegar, sugar and soy sauce are combined and turned into a delicate gelatin that sits atop; a playful re-envisioning of salad dressing.

For desert, a light and spongy cake, that reminds me of the US classic Angel Food cake, registers with an Asian palate with its pumpkin and soymilk ingredients. Again, Masuda finds surprising cohesion between cultures, tradition and creativity.

I ask Masuda, why bring the French name and the tri-national menu to Viet Nam, and Ha Noi in particular? After years of cooking Chinese cuisine at the Conrad-Hilton in Japan he took a leap and came to work at the Hilton in Ha Noi. Years later and he says he still doesn't miss Tokyo.

By the sea: Boiled fish, baby squid and clams overlaid by julliene ginger and scallion.

After a stint volunteering by teaching disadvantaged youth about food, Masuda began to dream of opening a restaurant in Ha Noi which would employ disadvantaged kids in the kitchen and on the restaurant floor.

PePe La Poule is the realization of that dream. Many of the staff used to live underneath the Long Bien Bridge, now they learn to make and serve really delicious food to clientele from around the world.

PéPé La Poule

Address: 27, 50/62, Dang Thai Mai Street, Tay Ho

Tel: 04-6291-2641

Dish price range: VND115,000-285,000

Dishes to try: pumpkin-coconut soup with roast almonds, cappellini with anchovy, basil and mozzarella, Spicy pork and sesame ramen

Comment: Well priced high-quality tapas, pasta and Chinese fusion.

Lunchtime is packed with Japanese wives and an occasional French business meeting. At night Japanese business men come by for dinner and a 360 degree view of the lake when the rooftop service starts. Expats and Vietnamese customers are spattered throughout, but their numbers will only grow with the slew of bars and restaurants opening up along Quang An. Four new bars have opened up in the past month.

The menu changes often to keep pace with the changing neighborhood and the seasons, about every two months. A new coffee from Buon Ma Thuot in Central Highlands of Viet Nam has just been added to the menu this week. A Halloween inspired course will make it to the table this October 31.

Customers looking for their share of trick-or-treats will be satisfied by the sweet fare and by Masuda who, from behind his many masks, loves to fool and surprise West Lake taste buds. — VNS

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