Our undercover critic checks out a Thao Dien institution. Photos by Nick Ross

 

From the welcoming red halo of its neon signage, we step through La Plancha’s large outdoor terrace to the coolness of its indoor dining room where our reserved table awaits. A friendly member of staff directs us to a spot just a metre or so from the bar.

 

It’s not ideal, but we’ll follow their lead with this. When a cloud of cigarette smoke billows over us from a group of drinkers standing nearby, we clock the fact that every single table (inside and out) carries an ashtray. Having just showered and suited-up in our Saturday evening finest, we decide that a table outside might be best — a request that is quickly dealt with without fuss.

 

We suspect we’re not their first guests to face such a predicament when we learn that a separate non-smoking extension to the main dining room is due to open in early June.

 

As we settle into large rattan tub chairs, La Plancha’s famously enormous food and drinks menus are placed before us. Being a restaurant with a Spanish name — a traditional iron-plate method of cooking — a French owner with a clear taste for wine and cheese, and a city-wide reputation for superb pizzas, you’d be hard-pressed not to find something you like here. The list is staggering.

 

Starter options are dominated by salads, ranging from a Nicoise (VND135,000) to a tempting chorizo and potato-based Iberica (VND175,000). After a complex decision-making process we order a Plancha-style tartiflette to share (VND145,000). This speciality from the Savoie border region of France traditionally blends smoky bacon lardons, fried onions and slices of potato, with deliciously pungent Reblochon cheese. Chorizo and a mellow Swiss cheese are the substitutes here. While such replacements do not detract too much from the essence of the dish, we find La Plancha’s version to be slightly out on its ratios. The beautifully baked slab of cheese dominates just a few lonely slices of potato, while a clutch of chorizo hides in one corner.

 

Tough Decisions

 

 

Despite my original plan to dive into a crisp Mediterranean-style pizza, the extensive list of grilled meat and seafood catches me off-guard and is suddenly my priority. Fortunately we’re able to chalk up a compromise — a round of tapas-style mini pizzas to fuel our culinary deliberations. And yes, their pizzas are very good.

 

Offering Angus steaks, tiger prawns, sea bass and duck (to name a few highlights), La Plancha is a carnivore’s dream. We opt for a salmon steak with rice (VND265,000) and an ostrich steak with a red wine sauce and French fries (VND235,000). Cooked perfectly rare, the deep flavours of the ostrich riff nicely with the sweetness of the red wine reduction. With forkfuls of fries to soak it all up, I’m a happy customer. The salmon is a beaut too, expertly-grilled and served with a zingy sauce to compliment the fresh, clean flavour of the fish.

 

 

If, by some strange reason, you haven’t made a choice by the time you reach this part of the menu, the pasta section should do the job. For those with willpower to make it there, the pizza list hides on the back page — last but certainly not least. Your choices roll upwards from a fresh mozzarella Margarita (VND105,000) to a decadent camembert et miel (VND195,000).

 

Desserts are equally eclectic — a thoughtful taster-plate catches our eye (VND105,000). Mini versions of four of La Plancha’s homemade favourites arrive, looking exquisite. Their banana nem is easily the best I’ve eaten, the luxurious vanilla ice cream could give Haagen-whatever a run for its money, and the chocolate mousse is like a cocoa-lined cloud.

 

Our favourite is the crème brûlée. We end up locked in an intense teaspoon duel over its crunchy golden shards and silky innards.

 

A Family Night Out

 

 

With Vietnamese dishes and children’s meals also available, choice seems to be the main draw at La Plancha. Catering for every taste, it’s a clear favourite for the expat family crowd — who seem to have descended en masse on the evening of our visit. Kids bound through the dining space, relaying between the giant TV showing cartoons inside and the painting station outside. For those expecting a quiet, romantic dining experience, you may wish to look elsewhere.

 

Inside, the bright lights and wide-open space make for a slightly canteen-esque feel, yet it’s relaxed and informal and suits the restaurant’s family-friendly style. By contrast, the outside space feels a little too dark and laden with shadows — a problem that would be easily reme-died with a candle or oil lamp on each table.

 

Having children’s cartoons on one side of the room, a smoky bar on the other and a mind-boggling array of gourmet cuisine in between, this place feels a little confused about what it wants to be. Less may be more here.

 

Overall, however, the numbers suggest it’s a winner. Dishing up hearty, comforting food cooked to exacting standards, La Plancha offers a taste of home, even for those of us without French, Spanish or Italian heritage.

 

La Plancha is at 25 Tran Ngoc Dien, Thao Dien, Q2, HCMC

 


 

The Verdict

 

Food: 11

 

Service: 12

 

Décor: 10

 

Food, Decor and Service are each rated on a scale of 0 to 15.

 

13 — 15 extraordinary to perfection

10 — 12.5 very good to excellent

8 — 9.5 good to very good

5 — 7.5 fair to good

0 — 4.5 poor to fair

 

The Word reviews anonymously and pays for all meals

 

 

Mystery Diner

Both a foodie and an enigma, I am a mystery. Even I don't know who I am sometimes. Male, female, Vietnamese, foreign. I could be any one of them. But one's thing for sure, I know how to write restaurant reviews. At least I like to think I do.
 

Website: wordvietnam.com/food-drink/mystery-diner

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