food / travel

In Paris, The Pinnacle Of Franco-Vietnamese Cuisine

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.

"At Tan Dinh, dishes and wines mutually complement the other" — Photo: Julia Rosien/Jason Hutchens/Amrufm/Jon Sullivan
"At Tan Dinh, dishes and wines mutually complement the other" — Photo: Julia Rosien/Jason Hutchens/Amrufm/Jon Sullivan
Julia Rosien/Jason Hutchens/Amrufm/Jon Sullivan
Emmanuel Tresmontant

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.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!