Way before Vietnam became synonymous with 20th-century regret, the country was a French colonial protectorate part of Indochina along with Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. Saigon was a favorite spot of the wealthy French on holiday. And that explains a great deal about the cuisine at Indochine, a unique boutique restaurant in Carytown.
Neither purely Vietnamese nor French, Indochine is a fusion of the two cuisines. But not fusion by caprice not mango chutney over chicken vindaloo in a raspberry-mole coulis. Rather, as the name implies, , is old-school, politically incorrect, imperialist fusion.
It is to this heritage and the introduction of Western kitchenware specifically the skillet and the concept of sauté that Indochine's chef, a South Vietnamese native, owes her debt of succulent gratitude.
At the base of the menu are Vietnamese traditions of fresh fish, fish sauces, fresh herbs and spices, lean meats and earthy flavors which offer a subtlety easily overlooked by Americans incapable of distinguishing between 37 degrees of sour and sweet. Marry that with French traditions of wine- and cream-based sauces, sauce reductions, pasta and the sauté method of cooking and you get a highly textured, complexity of flavors.
My favorite example of this is the Chilean seabass filet. Pan searing in a wickedly hot iron skillet creates a flavorful, light caramel-brown, crisp outer layer that contrasts with the soft, moist interior of the fish. The filet is topped with a sauté of crab, garlic and shallots, and is served over a curry cognac sauce, a creamy balanced reduction of sweet from the cognac with the highly spiced and exotic flavors of cumin, coriander and turmeric in the curry. Though among the most expensive items on the menu at $23.95, this is a rich and abundant dish which, as with all entrées, comes with either a salad or cup of soup du jour. Most entrees also emerge from the kitchen with a side of vegetable stir-fry and exotic smelling jasmine rice.
On a recent visit, we also enjoyed the layered flavors of the Poulet a la Franchinoise ($19.95) sliced chicken breast in a curry coconut sauce flavored with cayenne pepper, coriander and cinnamon and the Indochine seafood ravioli ($22.95) pureed shrimp, scallop, and crab in rice ravioli with a creamy cognac sauce. Oh, the complexity!
We also enjoyed tremendously our crispy wonton Indochine appetizer ($8.95), which seems to carry the French influence more in presentation that anything else: two good-sized beggar's purses, crispy fried and tied off with a windblown lace of cellophane noodle fit for a Paris runway in spring.
The Shrimp Royale ($7.95) is clearly French because no one in their right mind except a French chef would make shrimp this difficult, or this lovely. Two giant shrimp, peeled, deveined, and steamed are surrounded by a puree of chicken, shrimp, scallion and garlic, carefully folded into a sheet of light rice paper and fried tail fins exposed like helpless little mermaids.
In spite of the French influence, dining at Indochine is not a fussy experience. The restaurant is casually formal, a blend, itself, of Orient and Occident: white tablecloths and candles, but you're fine wearing nice jeans and a shirt. According to Tom Nguyen, son of the chef, manager of the restaurant and headwaiter, the goal is to create an atmosphere that balances all elements décor, music and cuisine. In this, Indochine succeeds. There also is surprising attention to detail here, too. For example, the menus are carefully tied into lovely cloth-covered books, which match the vests worn by the wait staff. The music: Edith Piaflike chansons of the 1930s.
In a town whose western edge increasingly resembles anytown, anywhere, Indochine is an effective antidote, an example of Richmond's exceptional boutique dining experiences, and an authentic representation of an Eastern world gone away.
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