Serving silkworm larvae at a five-star hotel's buffet lunch may seem odd, but not to chef Didier Corlou, the Hanoi-based Frenchman who has authored five books on both conventional and quirky Vietnamese fare. Guests at Hanoi's Sofitel Metropole hotel, where Corlou was executive chef until recently, raved about his cuisine (and some even ate the larvae, which taste a bit like caramelized puffed rice). Vietnam's government is a fan of his cooking too, choosing him over native-born chefs to prepare banquets for last year's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. So it comes as no surprise to discover that Corlou's elegant new French-Vietnamese restauranthis first solo operationis currently the most desirable dining venue in the Vietnamese capital.
Verticale, tel: (84-4) 944 6317, which Corlou opened in April with his Vietnamese wife (and fellow chef) Mai, is housed in a four-story 1930s villa, and is most definitely a family affair. Black-and-white photos of the couple's forebears from Hanoi and Brittany line the long staircase at the back of the building, which culminates in the rooftop bar and its welcoming leather-upholstered chairs. The ground floor entrance features a spice shop that resembles an apothecary, with flasks of sea salt and peppercorns, huge coils of cinnamon and bowls of loose star anise. This piece of whimsy stands in contrast to the French formality of Verticale's table settings and starched tablecloths, however. Arranging tables in a series of intimate dining rooms, rather than open-plan style, reinforces the atmosphere of old-fashioned fine dining.
As always with Corlou, it's the food that takes center stage. The menu changes constantly, but in the past diners have been greeted with an amuse-bouche like ultra-refined fish sauce with pork spring roll, or green-mango crudités with salt-and-chili dipping powder. For appetizers, Corlou has offered pumpkin soup with a dollop of homemade goat cheese or Dalat artichoke leaves with clams. Among the main courses, French staples vie for attention with Vietnamese-influenced disheswhich have included fish cooked with tamarind reductionwhile desserts like mango slices with lemongrass sorbet have brought many a meal to a refreshing conclusion. "What is beautiful to me is what is simple," Corlou explains. Don't believe a word of it: this is a syncretic cuisine of admirable complexity, prepared by a chef of real depth.