It’s hard to imagine a more peaceful location. A five-minute drive from beatific An Bang Beach on one side, and ten minutes from the unique ambience of Hoi An Ancient Town on the other, Tru Lang’s MÙA Hoi An opened in November 2019 in Trà Quế village.
Đọc bài viết bằng tiếng Việt
Not surprisingly, the terroir there is pretty special.
“We’re right in the heart of Trà Quế village,” Tru Lang begins, “a small island with more than 200 years of history cultivating fresh herbs. The Thu Bon river flows by on both banks, which brings nutrients and minerals from the sea that nourish the area.”
We’re catching up with Tru Lang during a short trip to Saigon for the riotous Nosh event – a two-night multi-chef cook off that’s a celebration of the industry here. “Actually,” he tells us, “I hand carried a box of fresh-picked herbs from Trà Quế to Saigon. The other cooks at Nosh compared them side-by-side with the ones available in Saigon, and they were surprised at how flavorful the ones from Trà Quế were.”
“But the two Quinces don’t have too much in common,” he says, quickly disavowing us of the notion. “However, this experience did remind me of the last kitchen in the States that I worked in, a place called Journeyman. There, the kitchen was also centered around a wood-fired hearth, and they served similarly creative but approachable dishes. So, this trip to Quince Saigon where I could revisit cooking by woodfire was a real pleasure.”
His chef’s journey States-side included a number of other stops – the three Michelin starred San Francisco restaurant Benu, a stint at Boston institution T.W. Food, and even one at the Boston-based Bon Me food truck project before he wound up at Journeyman. Would he like to set up a food truck in Hoi An, we ask. “I would love to have a dim sum food truck in Hoi An, somewhere by the river near the old town. I think we would kill it! But in Saigon, there’s so much amazing street food I’d be hard pressed to justify putting a food truck on the road…”
He’s already looking forward to being safely back in Hoi An, where he’ll be reconnecting with nature in Trà Quế village, a place that allows lots of time for thinking. “I spend most of it contemplating how to build meaningful connections around the topics of food and regenerative living…and how to survive the upcoming apocalypse,” he laughs.
That is until the nightly flow of curious guests to 30-seat MÙA Hoi An. “My favorite part of this is when local Vietnamese notice and appreciate the work we put in to source lesser-known Vietnamese ingredients from all over,” Tru Lang continues, especially when that includes fellow chefs.
“One cook who worked with me and has since opened his own place in Quy Nhon noted the way the dishes at MÙA Hoi An are strange, but familiar. I liked that – that we’re highlighting Vietnamese flavors in a novel way,” he adds.
One particularly playful dish at MÙA Hoi An is Tru Lang’s rendition of a banh mi…as a dessert. We ask how far he feels he can push the limits of creativity especially when reimagining iconic dishes.
“To me, as long as it’s recognizable – whether visually, or through its flavors – then I think we haven’t gone too far. But anyway, we’re not a traditional restaurant. The idea is to push the boundaries of what Vietnamese cuisine can be,” he says thoughtfully before concluding: “I’d rather go too far than not far enough.”
Lately he’s excited about dishes from his new summer menu like his crab and tomato, with gently baked marinated tomatoes, lotus root, avocado and soft scrambled duck egg with fresh crab meat. “It just tastes like Vietnamese summer to me,” he smiles, “I’m not sure how it came together, but it did.”
And so MÙA Hoi An is a restaurant named in tribute to changing seasons, and with a deep connection to history, and heritage and to fresh ingredients. “Vietnam has so many unique ecosystems as it traverses north to south. As it does it shares borders with China, Cambodia and Laos, and with that has come a huge amount of cultural exchange over the centuries, which has given us so many amazing stories to tell.”
We wonder which is Tru Lang’s favorite season anywhere. “If I had to pick, it would be autumn in Hoi An,” he answers after a long pause, “It’s a time of transition, a time to harvest the gifts of the summer and to prepare for a typhoon-filled winter. Visually, it’s stunning too, from the golden rice fields to the deep azure of the ocean…”
The only real break in the serenity is when too many guests arrive unannounced. “We do get groups of ten people showing up without reservations,” he shakes his head, “And then they order things we don’t even have on the set menu.”
The set menu is, for now, synonymous with MÙA Hoi An, “which grew both from necessity and demand.” The menu started off a la carte, until the persistent requests of friends, who knew Tru Lang’s fine dining background, and wanted tasting menus. “And also, during and around the pandemic, tasting menus were a great way to control inventory and costs. But we might revisit the a la carte menu soon, as well as our ability to welcome walk-in guests,” he adds.
For now, MÙA Hoi An’s tasting menu follows the rough structure of a Vietnamese meal, “with cooler, fresh dishes coming first, and culminating in a rice course, cooked traditionally in a claypot, with some light fruit-based desserts at the end.”
Lastly, with international travel resuming and Hoi An set to heave with guests once again, we ask which four chefs he’d most like seated around his table one night at MÙA. “Actually, that was one of the biggest reasons for me even being on this journey; to be able to host family and friends. But there are so many chefs I’m indebted to, it’s hard to choose only four,” he shrugs. But we insist. “Then, for their pioneering roles in sustainability and regeneration in cuisine, I’ll choose Shinobu Namae, from L’effervescence, Douglas McMaster, at Silo, Richie Lin at MUME and Eelke Plasmeijer and Ray Adriansya at Locavore,” Tru Lang decides.
“But the list goes on. To be honest, I wish everyone could come and experience the uniqueness of the herb gardens here, and the breadth of Vietnamese ingredients we’ve gathered at MÙA Hoi An,” he adds finally.
Photos by Dai Tran. Photos of MÙA Hoi An courtesy of the restaurant.