Tan Dinh is the oldest Vietnamese restaurant in the French capital, and may still be the best. Lately, the focus is on matching the perfect bottle of Burgundy with a spring roll or bowl of pho.
PARIS — Indifferent to trends and stars, there are some restaurants that just live their lives, quietly, and that tend to be discovered by surprise. Such is the case for Tan Dinh in the 7th arrondissement of Paris. It's the oldest Vietnamese restaurant in the French capital, having originally opened in 1968 in the Latin Quarter.
In the 1980s, it was not unusual to see artist and singer Serge Gainsbourg there (he lived just round the corner), or film director Marguerite Duras, who, after becoming friends with Chef Robert Vifian, suggested he could play the lover's role in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1992 film. "Luckily for everyone, it didn’t happen!" Vifian jokes.
Born in Saigon in 1948, this self-taught, Franco-Vietnamese polyglot is one of the most enigmatic figures of the gastronomic world. As familiar with cooking as he is with contemporary art (his real passion), he is loquacious when it comes to Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring or the Canadian sculptor David Altmejd, for whom he is currently organizing a retrospective at the Paris Museum of Modern Art.
When he is tasting a grand vin (which he does every day), Vifian notes his impressions in a small notebook, a bit like Louis de Funès in the film The Wing or the Thigh. Throughout his life, he has worked to recreate the forgotten recipes of Vietnamese haute cuisine.
A meeting place for wine enthusiasts
In his peaceful restaurant, as dark and protective as the shell of a sea urchin, diners can savor his legendary spring rolls with Peking duck and kumquat. Every morning, skilled female hands shape the tender smoked goose raviolis that they will then display on a sieve of thin fabric, laid on top of a pot of boiling water.
With its fresh herbs, its sticky rice with lotus seeds and its sauces that macerated a long time in the sun (of which the archetype is the traditional fermented fish and salt sauce), Vietnamese cuisine has a specific identity that distinguishes it from other Asian fare. To discover its authenticity, Tan Dinh (“the new city”) is a key venue.
Customers in a hurry can eat a single dish, like the very nourishing pho — a soup that is served any time of day in Vietnam. It appeared in the early 20th century, in Nam Dinh port, which was frequented by the Chinese and the French, so the soup was naturally born from a mix between Chinese noodle soup and the French pot-au-feu. After letting it simmer for a long time, it is flavored with fresh herbs and fish sauce, before strips of raw beef are added and it is finally served.
But Tan Dinh is not just a restaurant. It is also a meeting and reunion place for wine enthusiasts. Introduced to wine at a very young age by his grandfather, who always poured a drop of Volnay in his water, Vifian has acquired an encyclopedic knowledge that is respected by the most famous experts, be they Robert Parker or Michel Bettane.
Who else can claim to have tasted a 1947 château Cheval-Blanc 30 times? "In 1968, I came across a text in which the famous gastronomic critic Curnonsky 1872- 1956 said, in substance, that if Asian cuisine became mixed with wine, it would be the best in the world. For me, it all started there," Vifian says.
Today, Vifian is sure and has supporting evidence that, yes, the dish-wine combination is more complicated for Western cuisine than for Asian food. "Take coq au vin, for instance," he says. "In this typically Bourguignon dish, there are several ingredients: rooster, carrots, mushrooms, lardons. Each of these match with wine in a different way! You have different tastes with every mouthful. In Vietnamese cuisine, on the opposite, each dish has a certain unity — there are few ingredients, and it is quite simple as a whole — so it is easier to find harmony. Rice, in the same way, is more easily combined with wine than bread, which has several levels of taste between the crust and the inside.”
In Vietnamese cuisine, the approach to taste is different. "To remove the acidity of a lemon, for instance, we sprinkle salt on it," Vifian says. "This way, we get an aromatic condiment that, on certain braised dishes, will allow an interesting harmony with wines that have zesty and bitter notes, like the great champagnes of the Côte des Blancs."
At Tan Dinh, dishes and wines mutually complement the other. The peppery freshness of a great Saint-Joseph (by Jean-Louis Chave) will exalt the famous beef fillet, which, in Vietnam, is usually grilled very quickly after it marinates in a soy sauce flavored with zests of lime, spices, crushed pepper and honey.
For those interested after dinner, Vifian will also give a guided tour of his cellar. "I'm against the sacralization of wine," he says. Like great Vietnamese food, it is to be enjoyed rather than admired.