Every time I meet this friend, a corporate expat who has lived in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, we try out a new restaurant. With Le Corto he was suitably impressed. There’s something about the charcoal-grey walls and black ceiling, the velvet-covered couches, the wooden or marble-topped tables and the ambience of both classic yet contemporary, French-influenced décor that makes it a pleasant place to dine.
Located on the site that was formerly occupied by the first El Gaucho in Vietnam, it retains echoes of the past. As the friend said: “I always liked the upstairs room in El Gaucho”. What the new owners have done with it has made the space at least as appealing as before.
Bypassing the set lunch — we were both on a health trip — we ordered soup and salad. I settled for French onion soup (not so healthy) and the salade Lyonnaise, while my friend ordered the cauliflower soup and the salade de printemps. As we waited for the food to arrive, I started raving about my last visit.
From Cartoon to Cuisine
The restaurant is named after the comic character created by Italian cartoonist Hugo Pratt in 1967. Corto Maltese is the Latin version of Flashman, the character from Tom Brown’s Schooldays so wonderfully revived by Scottish novelist George MacDonald Fraser, in his series of adventure novels in the 1960s and 1970s.
“He’s an adventurer,” explains Jean-Marcel Guillon, one of the team behind Le Corto. “He likes women but is not a womaniser. He’s elegant and cosmopolitan but not fashionable, but is passionate and has friends everywhere. Cats are his favourite animal. He smokes, as well — mainly small cigarettes that he rolls himself. Le Corto was a name that nobody had, and it was a name that had a sound... He’s a character who fits very well with what we want to do.”
Le Thu, one of the other faces behind the new venture, adds: “That’s why we used the black cat in our logo. He loves cats. And that’s why black is a big part of the décor.”
Time to Indulge
To a backdrop of jazzy, loungy tunes from the likes of Aretha Franklin, Peter Cincotti, Ronny Jordan and Eliane Elias, our meal started — naturally — with the au torchon foie gras (VND320,000). Served with brown bread toast, roasted black garlic, beetroot jelly and vegetables julienne, the foie gras was wonderfully smooth — musty, smoky, melt in your mouth, a perfect match for the crunch of the toast and the vegetables. Eaten with the sweet black garlic, the complexion changed, the combination of sweet and smoky exploding on the palate.
This was followed by the ris de veau (VND490,000) or veal sweetbreads served up with morel mushrooms and crushed potatoes. Served up with a creamy sauce bursting with truffle, the veal was crispy on the outside, soft and succulent on the inside. Mixed together and drunk with a glass of French red, the dish was divine.
The dessert, the iced nougat with a red fruit sauce (VND195,000) was equally good — a wonderful end to an indulgent meal. Crunchy and yet soft all in one mouthful, the result was a sweet-and-sour style dessert made even more moreish thanks to the chocolate sugar on the side.
Striking a Balance
One thing that struck me about the menu — put together by award-winning French chef and co-owner Sakal Phoeung — was the pricing. Here it’s based on the cost of the ingredients. So some mains go for as little as VND220,000, while others such as the Black Angus Rossini reach VND880,000. The wine menu, mixing old world and new, is equally well priced, with wine by the bottle starting at VND600,000. In a town where prices can sometimes get extortionate, it’s a refreshing change.
But most important is the variety. Top-end French fare is all about indulgence, but on our lunchtime visit we were able to go the opposite route by opting for soup and salad. To me this suggests not only flexibility but also a desire to provide something for everyone. You can eat heavy cuisine, or you can go light; you can eat fish, seafood, vegetarian or meat. From my experience, the ability to have a menu adapted to the taste and desires of different customers is vital for keeping diners happy. Le Corto does this with aplomb.
Le Corto is at 5D Nguyen Sieu, Q1, HCMC, Tel: (08) 3822 0671. You can find them online at facebook.com/lecorto