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Swiss-style hotpot a sublime cheese fondue

Update: February, 28/2011 - 17:53

European tastes: Le Petit offers famous Belgian Beer such as Chimay, Leffe or Duvel. — VNS Photos Viet Thanh
Precise presentation: The ham is local but it comes in an Italian style.
Sublime: Cheese fondue is an interesting Swiss dining experience.

Le Petit Bruxelles

Addresses: No 1 Au Trieu (Hoan Kiem), Ha Noi. Tel +84 (04) 3938 1769 and No 10, Alley 27 Xuan Dieu, Ha Noi. Tel +84 (04) 3719 5853

Website: www.le-petit-bruxelles.com

Hours: 10am-10pm. The kitchen is open 11am-2pm and 5pm-10pm.
Price per person: VND105,000–500,000 ($5-25)

Comments: Offers a variety of European dishes with a focus on Belgian specialities. English speaking staff. Take away available. No delivery. Accepts credit cards.

Le Petit Bruxelles offers a truly European experience in Ha Noi. And it even satisfies the homesick Swiss. Miriam Glass reports.

After spending a couple of weeks in Asia, my friend is preparing to return to Switzerland in a few days. He would have loved to stay longer, but there is one thing that he is dying to get back to. If you ask him what the first thing is he will eat when he gets home, he'll reply, without missing a beat, "cheese".

Even if he enjoyed Vietnamese dishes very much, there was always this one thing missing. But why fly thousands of miles if you can find the most typical Swiss cheese dish right here, in the heart of Ha Noi?

In the cooler months of the year, from November until the end of February, the Belgian Restaurant Le Petit Bruxelles offers cheese fondue, which is a pot filled with tasty melted cheese in which one dips small pieces of white bread (fondue is the French word for melted).

In Le Petit Bruxelles the Cheese Fondue Savoyarde (VND390,000 or US$17.9) per person) is made of imported cheese from France, which is, we have to admit, just as good as Swiss cheese. It gets served in a black caclon, which is the special Fondue-pot on a gas flame, and with long shafted forks as used in Switzerland. Different from home, the bread comes slightly roasted on the outside – which is good to prevent it from falling apart and crumbling when dipped into the creamy and heavy melted cheese.

Loosing your bread in the pot is a thing to avoid when eating cheese fondue, at least if you believe in the rumours about Swiss fondue rules: he who looses the bread for the first time faces a beating five times with a stick. The second loss is followed by ten hits with a whip and the third time, the poor person who lost the bread will be thrown into a lake with heavy weights on his or her feet.

You don't think this is funny? Don't worry, the rules normally get changed – the worst thing that can happen if you sit with Swiss people around the caclon and loose your bread three times in it is that you will have to buy some drinks.

There are two locations in which to enjoy Le Petit Bruxelles's cheese fondue. One is located on Au Trieu, just beside St Joseph Cathedral; the other one is on Xuan Dieu by the West Lake. We tried the more central location, which was a good choice.

Arriving around 6.30pm there is a captivating atmosphere in the street; the voice of the priest reading the mass in the church can be heard outside and seems to lower the noise of the traffic. Young people sit in the street on little plastic chairs enjoying their ice tea. Join them for a street-style aperitif before entering another world – Le Petit Bruxelles welcomes you with soft music and white tablecloths on wooden tables. The first impression is timeless elegance, but the second look reveals some details that give the place a special and humorous note: on the wall you find Belgian comics, such as drawings of Tintin, Lucky Luke or Spirou.

Restaurant owner Pierre Renard likes to welcome his guests personally. Born in Dinant, Belgium, he came for a vacation to Viet Nam sixteen years ago and fell in love with the country. Renard, who ran three restaurants in Bruxelles and two in Dinant, eventually moved from Belgium to Ha Noi. He worked as a restaurant manager in different places in the city and opened his first restaurant, Le Petit Bruxelles, in the Vietnamese capital in 2003. In June 2010 the restaurant moved from its original Tran Quoc Toan location to West Lake and only in October last year to the second location at Au Trieu.

Renard tells his story standing at the bar in his restaurant, where famous Belgian beer can be enjoyed. Of the over 800 Belgian beers, Le Petit Bruxelles offers six, amongst them the sweetish Leffe Brune and the strong Chimay.

To accompany the cheese fondue we prefer a white wine though. The list offering eleven red and ten white wines makes it hard to decide, so we opt for the housewine (VND65,000 or $3 per glass). It tastes as it should: fresh, dry, light and fruity.

After eating 270g of cheese each, some delicious ham and a green salad – the sauce of which was actually the only thing to criticise, since there was not enough of it to give the salad some taste – we have no room for dessert. But the chocolate mousse is tempting. Some say Belgian chocolate is the best in the world. Swiss people usually disagree and claim this title for the products of their own country, but the mousse au chocolat (VND60,000) at Le Petit Bruxelles is so delicious that it would be worth it to come just for this.

When the weather gets warmer and the heavy fondue is no longer an option, there are many things to replace it. Pierre Renard recommends Fondue Bourguignonne, a beef fondue with six sauces (VND475,000 - $21.9) per person) which is served on the restaurant's outdoor terrace upstairs. Very Belgian are the dishes with chicory, an endive salad on the menu in various forms, for instance as gratin of chicory rolled in ham with a bechamel sauce and mashed potatoes (VND265,000 - $12).

As you leave the restaurant and spot the nearby street kitchen, you'll notice the contrast could not be greater. Renard enjoys this contact between different worlds – the European restaurant on one side and the lively outdoor-kitchen on the other – just as we do. After all, pho tastes even better after devouring some cheese fondue once in a while. — VNS

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