Wine pairings are common. But two acclaimed chefs at opposite ends of Vietnam created special whisky-pairing dinners. And they did it with Highland Park Whisky, this August. First, Chef Quang Dung at one of the best restaurants in Saigon the Chapter Dining & Grill Hanoi served up his ‘Wild Harmony’ dinner with Highland Park 12 and 18, and then a little over a week later, Chef Peter Cuong Franklin, at Nhau Nhau Saigon, served up his ‘Prestige Highland Park Truffle & Caviar Dinner’ with the addition of Highland Park 25 and 30-year-old whiskies.
Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt
Chapter Dining & Grill Hanoi focuses on Asian-fusion flavors cooked on the grill. As the name suggests, their menu is divided into different chapters. Each chapter represents a different theme or source of ingredients.
There’s the garden, the land, and the sea, building in the intensity of flavors as it goes until the menu ascends to heaven, Chapter Dining & Grill Hanoi’s celestial seasonal desserts.
Chef Quang Dung had the restaurant’s name in mind for years. But only with the opening of Chapter Dining & Grill Hanoi, his 5th project, in 2021, did he feel he’d really turned over a new chapter in his career befitting the name.
Nhau Nhau, is Anan Saigon’s upstairs sibling. Up here, the inspirations are Vietnam’s nhau drinking culture, Japanese izakayas, tapas bars, and Saigon’s swinging golden era of the 1960s. Anan was recognized as Vietnam’s Best Restaurant in 2021.
But a wall mural on the way up the stairs announces intimate Nhau Nhau’s intentions: ‘Không Say Không Về’ or ‘Don’t Go Home Until You’re Drunk.’
“And there’s a nakedness to that. We have nothing to hide – our food and our service should be honest. There’s an added element that the sight and the smells of the food trigger some anticipation and craving from our guests for the delicious dinner that awaits them.”
Peter Cuong Franklin chose Nhau Nhau as the venue for his August 23rd dinner for its size. “There’s always something special about dinners at Nhau Nhau because of its intimacy and ambiance,” Peter explains.
“We limited the number of guests to 14 only for this special occasion, and the bar counter served as a replacement for a chef’s table where guests could interact easily with our bartender, me – the chef, and the Highland Park Whisky ambassador, Denish Nguyen.”
For his ‘Prestige Highland Park Truffle & Caviar Dinner’ Peter led with a Truffle Old Fashioned. And then, in succession, the Highland Park 12, 18, 25 and 30 with lots of small bites.
There was a salmon tartlet, caviar and scallop, moving onto more full-flavored dishes like duck roulade, and marrunga marbled lamb, and finally a chocolate & caviar dish with Valrhona chocolate, lemongrass and albino caviar to pair with the Highland Park 30.
That’s why I prefer tasting menus with small dishes. But in each dish there should be concentrated flavor. For example, for the caviar egg dish we combined a dollop of sturgeon caviar with a lobe of Japanese uni, with a slow-cooked local farm egg to get big flavors in one bite.”
Quang Dung’s dinner was eight days before. It featured a special Chapter Dining & Grill Hanoi menu divided into its signature chapters – snacking, raw & fresh, from the garden, the ocean and the land, and then the heavenly desserts.
And it featured pairings like Highland Park 12 with eel, date and macadamia; and pigeon, tamarind and pumpkin with Highland Park 18.
In addition, Chef Quang Dung interspersed his menu with some already-iconic Chapter Dining & Grill creations, like their edible candle.
“I discovered a book called The History Of English Food. In the 15th century they’d use drippings and lard for fuel…so why not make an edible candle? That took us over 20 attempts to get the recipe right – with lots of wanting to give up along the way.”
Peter’s seen as the man who f*cked with pho. And Dung is a chef who likes to give everything a lick of flame (even a butter candle). So, The Dot Magazine got them together to discuss their approaches to this unique north to south Highland Park event.
Can you describe Highland Park Whisky to someone who’s never tried it?
Quang Dung: It’s a whisky with a complex smokey flavor. It’s easy to drink, and, I feel, a suitable pairing for grilled food.
Peter Cuong Franklin: Right, Highland Park Whisky is different to other whiskies. It has a bold flavor. It’s full-bodied, and has a smoky sweetness and some fruity aromas. I read a bit about its long history. They’ve made it in the same traditional way in Kirkwall, Orkney Scotland for 220 years.
Which came first, the whisky or the cuisine at Chapter Dining & Grill and Nhau Nhau Saigon for these events?
Peter Cuong Franklin: This time, for us at Nhau Nhau Saigon, the food came first. However, for the special 25 year old and 30 year old Highland Park Whiskies, we let them lead the show. Longer-aged whiskies have more subtlety.
The character of the distillery and that of the whisky maker plays a greater part in the overall flavor, and we needed to take that into careful consideration.
Quang Dung: For me, the concept of ‘Wild Harmony’, Highland Park’s tagline, came first. We saw our event’s objective as being to educate people on how well whisky can pair with food. Our approach, then, was to make them both main characters in the show – something like Captain Kirk and Spock in Star Trek!
What are the biggest challenges when pairing Highland Park Whisky with your food?
Quang Dung: Obviously there’s a higher alcohol content, compared to wines. We want guests to enjoy the evening. And to do it without getting too inebriated. And our chefs as well during the research and development of the menu!
But the whisky’s flavor is surprisingly delicate, so we sought to identify the unique traits of each one, and find a suitable match for them.
A good example was the salt water eel dish with dates, macadamia and a truffle tare. We served the dish with Highland Park 18. There’s something special about the boldness of the flavors in that dish. It worked well with the smoothness and smokiness of the Highland Park 18.
Peter Cuong Franklin: The first thing that springs to mind is that the challenges weren’t all mine!
The truffles we served take at least five years to produce. In Australia, they planted hazelnut and oak trees, and after lots of failures, they successfully grew them to produce black truffles in Manjimup in 1997, and the first truffles arrived in 2004.
The first sturgeon eggs were hatched at the base of Tuyen Lam Lake in Dalat in 2007. And the first caviar harvest was in 2013 – it takes five to seven years for sturgeon to produce caviar.
And, obviously, the Highland Park Whisky we used goes from 12 years old to 30 years old. We need to honor the terroir, the craftsmanship and the time taken to make such products.
So for me, as a chef, it’s also challenging. Sometimes you get lucky, and something magical happens when the elements all come together.
One stand-out at Nhau Nhau, according to guests that night, was the cha ca dish. We served it with Highland Park 12. I’d been meaning to play around with that northern fish dish for some time. I figured the sweet, buttery flavor of the Japanese black cod, with turmeric, galangal and dill, would work well with the Highland Park 12.
What question would you like to ask each other about these two special Highland Park Whisky dinners?
Peter Cuong Franklin: I’m always intrigued by the thought processes other chefs go through. And the self-questioning that goes on during that process.
So, I’d like to ask you, Dung, more about your thinking process. For me, it’s a combination of respect for the product, mixed with some fear and trepidation, and a certain amount of f*ck it. And we dive in and do it and see what happens.
Quang Dung: Thanks Peter, good question. I guess I try to orient myself by our core philosophy – finding the best ingredients we can source every day…and trying not to f*ck them up.
It’s simplistic, but it helps remove some of the over-thinking and self-doubt that can creep in. Like you, we just want our guests to leave with full stomachs and smiles on their faces. It’s as simple as that.
For this dinner, we were sent the Highland Park Whiskies ahead of time. We had a trip to Bac Ninh planned, and took the Highland Park 12 and 18 along with us.
We had a wonderful ‘wild birds and river fish banquet’ there and tested out lots of pairings. Some combinations went so well together it gave us clear direction for our menu. Then, once we got back, we could focus on flavor harmony and then, after that, cooking methods.
I’ve always admired your creativity and cleverness. So, Peter, I wonder how such an energetic, playful and fun establishment like yours goes about creating a menu to align with the tradition and taste of a classic drink like Highland Park Whisky.
Peter Cuong Franklin: That’s a good question, too. Well, traditionally fine dining is paired with fine wines from the Old World, typically wines from France and Italy.
So, one challenge I took on for this event was creating a menu that put traditional Vietnamese flavors alongside these classic single malt whiskies.
Then, I approach the food with a great respect for the ingredients, but also with a sense of whimsy and playfulness, so it’s still some serious fun for our guests too.