I don’t think colonialism ever tasted so good! The French spent something like a century trying to make Vietnam be French; and based on the latest restaurant opening in New Orleans, it certainly might have worked out. Mauritius-born, French-trained chef Dominique Macquet last week opened the doors of Tamarind, devoted to putting maximum freshness (and Frenchness!) into the most popular flavors from Southeast Asia. Like this wonderful Vietnames crepe filled with crispy lamb, mustard greens, mint and basil, Tamarind makes it all seem like a marriage made in colonial heaven.
The lovely restaurant is located in the newly renovated Hotel Modern (tres New York) right at Lee Circle, where the old general high on his pedestal seems to be remembering our Civil War. Inside, we’re more likely to remember a couple other conflicts, including the 1950s version that expelled the French from Vietnam and the 1960s and 1970s version that sent so many Vietnamese as refugees to a handful of American destinations. Such as New Orleans.
As described by Macquet, dishes on the menu come together in an interesting way. His chef in Tamarind, Quan Tran (yes, a bit of authenticity there, even after a dozen years of cooking around town with Macquet), whips up mostly traditional Vietnamese dishes – and then Macquet ponders how to make them better. Along the way, these foods get a tad more global, but also more local and seasonal. Which means, they end up being what they surely were in some village at the start. Except much more exciting. Pictured above is something called pork porterhouse, on celery root-pomme puree with a broccolini-carrot stirfry and plum wine jus.
Like every chef, Macquet has his signature dishes. Certainly such things do evolve over the years. But the knowing will always expect to find them on the menu somewhere. So it is with Macquet and Louisiana shrimp. One, in New Orleans, why not? And two, this chef does some amazing things with them. Here they are at Tamarind served with Jazzmen (jasmine?) rice, with crispy mirliton-winter squash relish and kaffir lime beurre blanc.
A funny thing happened to New Orleans bananas Foster on the way to France by way of Vietnam. It kind of deconstructed itself. When it returned to New Orleans with stamps in its passport, it was caramelized banana with coconut sorbet. As a dessert at Tamarind, it’s a miraculous reminder that New Orleans and Vietnam share being tropical along with the Caribbean and South America, where the city’s bananas came from on slow boats in the first place, thus inspiring Owen Brennan and his chef in the 1950s to set them on fire and call them Foster.
Then again, when have I ever not lusted after creme brulee? Never, you should reply. In this dessert, lush creaminess gets a bit of zing from another piece of local food lore – the satsumas grown along the Mississippi River as it winds through Plaquemines Parish to the Gulf of Mexico. The citrus production at places with names like Jesuit Bend is nothing like California or Florida (or even the Rio Grande Valley in Texas). But locals love their local satsumas – especially when they turn up in creme brulee!