Dinner with Rau Om

    Early September. Monday night. An adorable meal that combines various elements of two Far Eastern cuisines. The parts harmonize, the mixture represents a cuisine of its own: the kind that you can only find in a home kitchen and enjoy with friends in the living room. We sit on the floor, we share twelve courses plus some, we listen to a record of traditional Vietnamese instrumental, we drink chrysanthemum tea in wine glasses. We talk fooding. We feel luxury, “like the wealthy landlords of the old days” as Dang put it. 🙂 A dinner with Oanh and Dang, the Rau Om lady and man, is fine dining without the frilly designed plates, the crisp white napkins, and the pompous lighting. Each of the twelve courses has just enough twists to wow us while retaining enough familiarity to comfort us. But what I like the most about Rau Om creations is the way Oanh and Dang use one country’s familiar ingredients in the other country’s familiar dish, surprising (at least) me with the compatibility and similarities between the two cuisines. It’s the fusion of the authentics.

    My ladies and gentlemen, the September 5th Japanese-Vietnamese (+ a little Korean) dinner by Hoang-Oanh Nguyen and Linh-Dang Vu-Phan of Rau Om:

    On the foreground is No. 1 – Bossam-styled Oyster con Prosciutto: the oyster was low-temp-cooked (read: “semi-cooked”) at 48°C for 20 minutes in bossam (보쌈) broth in a closed jar, rendering a literally melt-in-the-mouth texture while its fishiness is subdued by the tangy sesame leaf and the briny prosciutto.
    In the background are two blocks of No. 2 – Tofu Misozuke, tofu wrapped in miso for at least 2 months. It’s creamy, briny, accented with a herbal afterthought. It’s cheese, but vegan, and better than cheese because the taste evolves in your mouth. We were also introduced to Rau Om’s experimental Kombu Tofu Misozuke, tofu misozuke wrapped in miso and kelp for a less salty but more aged taste.

    No. 3 – Grilled Lamb Nem. I’ve tried Rau Om beef nem before, fresh and fried, and this lamb version sings a better tune for me. The texture is smooth (they use less pork skin here), grilling keeps them moist, both the lamb scent and the sourness of cured meat are subdominant.

    The intermezzo No. 4 – Chilled Tomato Soup topped with Yuba Cream. The frothy soy based cream makes all the fireworks. This soup is the epitome of refreshment. I wanted more.

    No. 5 – Salted Kumquat Quail, grilled on a bed of lettuce to keep it juicy. The kumquat scent so subtly infuses the bird that all we can feel is a clean herbal flavor, not salty, not fatty, just l(r)ight.

    From right to left, because we’re going Japanese, No. 6, 7, and 8 – Sake Kasu Grilled Cod, Mackerel braised with Green Tea Leaves, and Mugicha Mackerel (mackerel braised in barley tea). The braised mackerels, minus the tea, are done in the traditional Vietnamese way (cá kho) with coconut water, sugar and fish sauce. The green tea leaves add a sharp crunch for textural contrast, and once again, the herbal touch dominates the tastes. Personally, I have a soft spot for a lot of coconut water and sugar in a braised dish, but that might prevent the tea from shining through in this case, and at least one of us ranked the braised mackerels top of the list, so Oanh and Dang must be on the right track. 🙂 Tea aside, the fish also got served with the best pickle ever: green cantaloupe in a mild chilipepper and vinegar sauce.  The pickle zest makes the sweetest pair with the mugicha mackerel plumpness.

    No. 9 – Tofu Misozuke Duck: a twist on the Vietnamese lẩu vịt nấu chao (duck hotpot with fermented tofu), where the chao (fermented tofu with rice wine and salt) is replaced by the tofu misozuke, which is less salty and biting than chao but still as rich. I love the chrysanthemum greens (tần ô or cải cúc) soaked in this thick sauce.

    No. 10 – Sous-vide Chao Duck: this time the duck is marinated with chao and cooked sous-vide until pink, then quickly pan-fried for a charred skin. (Side note: The Western palates are accustomed to treating duck breast like steak, but the Vietnamese never eat duck anything less than well done.) Biting into these succulent thighs and legs is like falling onto a giant bed of pillows, y’know wadda mean? 😀

    No. 11 – La Giang Sour Soup with chicken (Picture courtesy of Rau Om). Lá giang is the leaf of the Aganonerion polymorphum plant, which has a gentle sourness (as opposed to the piercing sourness of tamarind or dracontomelon (sấu) that is typically used in the Vietnamese canh chua). Ending the meaty main courses with a refreshing sour soup is brilliant, and this simple bi-gredient sour soup is pure genius.

    Oanh Nguyen, the mastermind behind the elaborate dinner

    No. 12 – Black Amazake served warm: Rau Om signature Japanese dessert made from Vietnamese black sticky rice (nếp than). The sweetness and the fragrant come directly from the cooked rice, no sugar is added, no grated ginger for flavor, a couple of dried longans garnish the amazake for texture. By itself, the amazake has a smooth porridge-like consistency dappled with the occasional stiffened rice bits.

    We pair the meal with chilled sikhye (식혜) and red wine; for the postlude come fresh jujube and lychee to accompany whole chrysanthemum tea and homemade salted kumquat drink. How could we go home when such goodness keeps on flowing?

    On one hand, I can’t wait for the day Oanh opens her first restaurant and I’ll get her autograph. On the other hand, I won’t be able to enjoy these relaxing dinners with Oanh when she’s busy with a restaurant. The selfish Mai feels torn. 🙂

    For detailed recipes, visit the Rau Om blog.

    This post is our contribution to the September Edition of Delicious Vietnam, hosted by Phuoc from Phuoc ‘n Delicious. 🙂

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    14 comments to Dinner with Rau Om

    • Thanks, Mai, for coming to dinner and for the write-up too. It was fun to hang out with you in person and to talk food.

      We’re working on posting the recipes for these dishes on our blog, starting with the quails.

      See you again soon!

    • Mai

      Thank you for inviting me to the dinner! 🙂 You guys have taught me so many things.
      Actually I just submitted this post for this month’s DV too. 😛

      See you again soon!

    • What an elaborate and intriguing meal!

    • Mai

      It was! I actually forgot another very tasty thing in the meal: the pickles that accompanied the fish! I’ve gotta add that now.

    • Mmm, the kumquat quail sounds especially spectacular. 😉

    • Thanks, Mai, for all the kind words and for submitting it to Delicious Vietnam. Now we’re completely embarrassed.

      We particularly appreciate your comments especially in light of your previous observations that modernist and fusion cuisine can sometimes feel inauthentic and/or rootless. It’s something we definitely fret about and have to grapple with often. We’d like our food to be dirtless – as in having no grounding anchor and with our roots fully visible and recognizable – but not rootless 🙂 Also dirtless in the literal sense, too 🙂

    • @Carolyn: the kumquat quail wins everyone over. 🙂 I’ve never had a bad quail dish actually. 😛 But for me the most surprisingly good thing was the tomato soup, cuz normally I don’t like tomato gazpacho.

      @Oanh: your food is definitely not rootless. I like that you don’t just throw together some stereotypical ingredients that are commonly associated with the cuisines, which is what I dislike the most in the typical fusion restaurants. I feel like you know well what the native people like and associate with their cuisine, and you implement them seamlessly. 🙂

    • Nice meeting you through the Delicious Vietnam bloghop. My first participation this month. Love your spread of all food goodness here and your evocative story. Delicious!!

    • Mai

      Nice meeting you too, Shulie! And I look forward to reading more of your Vietnamese creations in the coming months, perhaps with some Indian Israeli twists 😉

    • The dinner spread seems amazing and never-ending but you had me at Bossam-styled Oyster con Prosciutto. I completely salivated over this dish and wish I could make it here in Dubai but I hate shucking oysters.

      Thanks for sharing your beautiful feast!

    • Mai

      Thank you for visiting, Ginger! Guess you just have to visit the Bay sometimes and have a blogger offline partee with Oanh and I! 😉

    • Tham

      Where do you buy lá giang in the U.S?

    • […] dishes from this dinner. You don’t just have to take our words for it, either: Mai @ FlavorBoulevard wrote up her dinner experience and posted  more photos of the […]

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