“When I first saw this thing I thought no, I'll never be able to fill orders, it was so small!” exclaims chef Anne Cecile Degenne, in reference to Social Club's star piece of hardware, the Josper Grill.
Degenne was speaking with Lunch Magazine about her culinary endeavour, based at Hotel Des Arts Saigon, a slick indochine addition to Ho Chi Minh City’s luxury hotel set.
Headed by Degenne, the Social Club's menu embodies modern and relaxed dining. Grilled seafood and meat cuts feature prominently. According to “Chef”, as Anne Cecile is affectionately known by the staff, it was a conscious choice to build the menu around the Josper Grill. “Once we got moving with it – wow, it's amazing. We can control the temperature and that beautiful chargrill flavour perfectly – it generally runs between 350 and 450 degrees Celsius.”
Degenne admits to an obsession for fresh produce; local Vietnamese suppliers provide the fresh seafood, vegetables, fruit and greens for the kitchen. “We get 85% of our produce locally”, says Degenne, “I like to have a personal relationship with the supplier, I want to look them in the eye!”
“They've even offered to give me a market garden so we can grow what we want, that's personal you know?”
“I really feel like this is my restaurant now, elegant and precise.”
Later on, we’re back for dinner.
I'm impressed by the dark wooden, Victorian bar, which runs a goodly length of the room. The owner purchased the bar in London and during construction had it meticulously reassembled as Social Club's show piece. Plush, Victorian – style couches surround low tables, brandy decanter chandeliers hang overhead. The effect is a relaxed hybrid of colonial and modern opulence.
A rustic foie gras is more reminiscent of a meat-cut, seared perfectly and accompanied by a tart, sweet pineapple chutney. The sugar-laden hit of the pineapple balances the rich, thick slab of foie gras and awakens the palate. The tuna tartar with truffle and green apple impresses by balancing three very different flavours in tryst.
Fresh, grilled tiger prawns are infused by the Josper grill’s moreish chargrill flavour and crisp on the outside, the flesh carries hints of a subtle Vietnamese-inspired marinade. The extreme heat in the grill seals in the juices of the Australian beef tenderloin, there’s almost no loss of moisture. The flesh is perfectly medium-rare and each bite is full of flavour.
All the hallmarks of French technique, with a modern twist, are present in our desserts. My 'revisited' lemon curd tart is the best looking dish of the evening, echoing Degenne's love for tricky presentation. The lemon curd is rich and smooth, not too sweet, while deconstructed elements like a short pastry crumble and meringue add texture. My partner's chocolate lava cake with house-made vanilla bean ice cream (impressive given the current shortage of vanilla out of Madagascar) still bubbles with dark, aromatic chocolate.