Porte d’Annam is a few steps from St. Joseph’s Cathedral, and boasts a history that’s nearly as rich. It was once home to three Jesuit brothers who lived within the space’s cavernous rooms, and Corlou has kept the rough design, the chipping dull-yellow paint, and the original construction, maintaining an exquisite charm.
The restaurant is Corlou’s fourth in Hanoi — he’s the man behind Madame Hien and La Verticale, and formerly led the kitchen at the Metropole. The name means the “door to Annam”, Annam being the name given by the early French arrivals to Vietnam. The name is fitting, as the restaurant is Corlou’s stage upon which to present classic Vietnamese dishes through the lens of his refined French cooking.
“The culture of the country is in this restaurant,” he says.
Porte d’Annam is built on innovation as much as on tradition.
“People like cuisine that’s moving,” Corlou says. “People’s tastes are changing and we have to adapt with the people.”
Corlou has a long relationship with Vietnam, having lived here since 1991, and has an equally long relationship with Vietnamese food. He praises Hanoi’s balance of flavours, and its characteristic blend of herbaceousness, bitterness and spice.
“I’ve written five books about this cuisine, I respect this cuisine, I talk about this cuisine,” he says. “This, to me, is the best cuisine in the world.”
Winter is Coming
Corlou takes you on a trip through time with his signature fresh roll in four seasons (VND115,000). Plucking hungrily through this colourful platter, I work my way from spring to summer to autumn to winter — a crisp and floral green papaya roll; a refreshingly sweet prawn and mango combination; a rolled-up, creamy assortment of aromatic mushrooms; and a salty, rich fried duck nem wrapped with crunchy slaw and crisp herbs in a sheet of rice paper. Despite winter being my least favourite season, I’d take a full year of winter if it meant a full year of these nem rolls.
Next up is a melt-in-your-mouth dish of seabass carpaccio (VND145,000). The strips of raw fish flake at my chopsticks’ delicate poke, but that doesn’t stop me from scraping up bits of fish smothered in a wasabi-sesame sauce with the earthy seaweed salad. It’s silky, salty, chewy perfection in a bite.
Ba Ba Ba with Cá
Porte d’Annam’s main courses are full of surprises, and span Vietnamese cuisine from classic to modern. On the modern end of things is Corlou’s quirky take on a straightforward fish dish: rice field perch “Paupiette” (VND173,000), a prawn-stuffed snakehead fish that’s steamed in a 333 Beer can.
On serving, the fish, packaged in a banana leaf and marinated in a turmeric-heavy mixture, is eased out of the beer can and the beer (which becomes bitter when cooked) is discarded. The leaf is unwrapped and the fish is sliced to reveal a vibrant core of jumbo prawn and herbs. It’s eaten similarly to cha ca, combined in extraordinarily tasty chopstick-fulls with rice noodles, herbs, vegetables and a splash of lime.
Stepping back into tradition are the pork ribs (VND175,000), packing a punch of sweet, garlicky flavour that engulfs the generous serving of juicy meat. The meat is hearty and rambunctious, but delicate enough to succulently spread its way across your tongue.
The Sweetest Goodbye
In a city where you must ask twice to get a smoothie without sugar and condensed milk, Porte d’Annam’s blancmange is a refreshing twist: it’s sweet, but not too sweet. A cylindrical mould of spongy coconut mousse sits at the plate’s centre, topped with a scoop of cinnamon ice cream. Slivers of almonds add subtle crunch to each bite, and the dessert is rounded off with a snowfall of shaved cassia bark.
I’m stuffed to the gills and my taste buds are giddy as I leave Porte d’Annam, scrolling through hordes of Instagram-worthy food pictures starring Corlou’s beautiful cuisine. — Noey Neumark