Acclaimed Hue-based artist, Madame Bội Trân, owns a palatial estate known as Bội Trân Garden in the Thien An hills on the outskirts of the city of Hue (pronounced “Hoo-way”), often regarded as Vietnam’s culinary capital. The estate incorporated beautifully-landscaped gardens and a collection of pavilions and houses built in French-Vietnamese and ancient Champa architectural styles. The estate is maintained by a staff of 30, many of whom were from disadvantaged backgrounds, hired by Madame Bội Trân as she wanted to give them a second chance in life.
Whilst she spends most of her time painting in her studio, the ever-elegant 64-year-old Madame Bội Trân also cooks. Her menu degustation, served in the elegant main house has, we were told, a 6-months wait-list! One of my friends who organised this trip had the foresight to plan way ahead so we could have lunch here.
The open kitchen behind opened up to the back gardens, and we could see the kitchen cooks preparing our noon-time meal.
The vegetables and herbs were all freshly plucked from the back gardens.
The well-coiffed Madame Bội Trân (seen here with a lavender scarf) actually went into the kitchen herself to make sure all the dishes are prepared properly.
The lunch was a light but very well-conceived meal:
Grilled shrimp paste on sugarcane (chạo tôm nướng mía) - this classic Vietnamese starter here consisted of flavoursome shrimp paste, deep-fried till just cooked, then served in fresh leaf wraps with slivers of fresh Hue figs, cucumber, fresh basil and young bitter gourd.
Hue salad (gởi Huế) - this is a complex dish which is rarely made nowadays, and was one of the dishes served to the late chef-travel host, Anthony Bourdain, when he dined here. The broth was made from boiling the cá bống freshwater fish from the Hương River which meanders its way lazily through Hue. The whole little fishes were simmered with slivers of pineapple, red chilis, onion, coriander leaves and shallots.
The broth is then poured over a delicate yet complex salad of quickly-poached prawns, red chili, galangal, ginger, spring onions, glass noodles and shredded banana blossom.
Fish with lime sauce (Cá sốt chanh) - fillets of snakehead fish were lightly dusted in flour and pan-fried, then glazed with a subtly-flavored sauce derived from local limes, with finely-chopped fresh herbs. The texture of the fish was just perfect, and the light, citrusy sauce was just right - like all other dishes I’d tasted in Hue, it’s got a perfect balance of sweet and sour, and is never too heavy nor greasy.
Beef soup with rolled rice pancake (Xáo bò bánh uớt) - another seemingly common dish, but done so well here. The beef broth has a delicate, savoury depth of flavour. The beef slivers were poached a la minute before being served, and were utterly delicious. Each diner was given a plate of bánh uớt rice noodle rolls to dip into the broth. I found the inclusion of the noodles to be entirely unnecessary. The both itself was extraordinarily flavoursome, and I wouldn’t want to dip anything into it, much less fat rolls of bland noodles.
Vegetable salad (Xà lách rau) - this salad is reminiscent of Thai green mango salad, and consisted of about the same components, with finely-shredded green mango, carrots, fresh basil, crushed peanuts, sawtooth mint and other herbs, and a generous sprinkling of crushed peanuts. The dressing was lighter than its Thai counterpart, with a hint of fish sauce.
Dessert: Longans stuffed with lotus seeds (Chè nhãn bọc hạt sen) - I never knew longans could taste so good, when paired with steamed lotus seeds harvested from a lake nearby. The deceptively simple dish was astonishingly good. It’s one of the “chè” (sweet dessert soups) categorised under royal cuisine.
The service at Bội Trân Garden was nonpareil. The soft-spoken Madame Bội Trân herself was elegance personified, and her staff took after her exquisite mannerisms.
We were even seen to the gate of her estate personally by Madame Bội Trân herself as we were leaving.
Boi Tran Garden
Thien An Hill, Hue City, Vietnam
Tel: +84 234 388 4453/+84 79 35 37 357
Opening hours: By appointment