Chefs and restaurateurs tend to address their customers at the end of the meal, revelling in a few minutes’ glory and the appreciation of those who have enjoyed their hard work.
But these are not normal times in Paris at the moment and nor is Robert Vifian a normal restaurateur or chef (nor is he a normal wine buyer, either, but more of that later).
So when our party of 15 had arrived at the Vifian family's restaurant, Tan Dinh, on Paris’s Left Bank, had handed in our coats to the unusually phlegmatic Vietnamese waiters, had taken our seats at the long table, and Vifian had carefully poured us each a glass of de Sousa’s delicious non-vintage Champagne, then this quietly spoken man in his chef’s whites said 'Welcome to Paris and thank you for coming.'
These few words conveyed a strong but heartfelt message. Restaurateurs across the city have seen their business badly affected by the terrible atrocities that the so-called jihadists committed on Friday 13 November, precisely a month before our visit.
Lunch the day before had taken place in a full Juveniles but patronne Margaux Johnston had added that the evenings were now much quieter than usual. Hotels have seen bookings fall by over 50% as Americans in particular have cancelled. And certainly our 48 hours in this charming city showed that life on the streets, particularly at night, is much more subdued than we remembered it a year ago.
Robert’s speech was greeted by my friends, a bridge party of eight plus assorted partners and three French friends, with echoes of the Dunkirk spirit. One female friend said that she would never allow the actions of terrorists to influence her decision as to where to spend the weekend and I do hope that anyone reading this will feel the same. Paris needs you and the sooner you can get there, the better.
Perhaps we had also been influenced by our walk to the restaurant. Once past the crowds outside the Christmas windows of Galeries Lafayette and Printemps, we strolled almost in splendid isolation past the Louvre, across the Seine, with the Eiffel Tower lit up to the right, and on to the Left Bank. We turned into the rue de Verneuil hungry and thirsty.
We were made even more so by what was waiting for each of us. On everyone’s place mat was a carefully typed menu, the handiwork of Robert’s wife Isabelle, that was intriguing as well as exciting. What exactly was our first course of ‘chips with trout roe’? The three meat dishes, comprising duck, chicken and beef, sounded delicious but the final course, simply headed ‘desserts’, sounded mysterious too. (Robert had been asked to write a menu that excluded pork, ham and shellfish with our Jewish friends in mind.)
The wines on the right-hand side of the menu looked, if anything, even more exciting. After the champagne, there were four extremely well-chosen wines: a Mâcon, Clos de la Crochette 2009 from Héritiers Lafon, on the restaurant’s wine list at €75; Château Les Ormes Sorbet 2010, a fine Médoc not readily available in the UK; an Aloxe-Corton 1er Cru La Toppe au Vert 2009 from Michel Mallard, referred to by our restaurateur son as ‘Micky Duck’, poured from magnum; and finally a Sauternes in its prime, Château Bastor-Lamontagne 1988. The picture below shows him personally pouring the magnum of red burgundy, carefully chosen because he had been so impressed by the wine recently from the cellar of a mutual friend.
But what made the greatest sense was the combination of the left- and right-hand sides of the menu, particularly the first course with the champagne. The trout roe was served in a shallow bowl on top of a thick coconut cream laced with chopped chives and chilli while the ‘chips’ were in fact Vietnamese prawn crackers used for scooping the mixture into one’s mouth. As a welcoming dish, this was a big hit. It is quite easy to make, very easy to serve, and impressive too as it combined the crackling noise of the trout eggs, less oily than salmon eggs, with the fizz of the champagne. There were enthusiastic nods of appreciation around the table.
There followed three meat courses. Plates of cold pancakes stuffed with duck and, for me the essential ingredient, kumquats, that had been sliced into three and were served with a pungent dark dipping sauce. Then bowls of home-made noodles with the diced, dark pieces of chicken meat running through it alongside diced cucumber (their skins left on to provide extra crunch) and cardamom; and finally plates of particularly tender fillet of beef, sliced into mouth-size pieces, and served with a sauce laced – just to the right extent – with very good vinegar. The sauce was so delicious that I found myself scooping it up just as the waiter was trying to take the plate away.
Finally, to desserts that in this case incorporated dried cherries, dried kumquats laced with sesame seeds and thin slices of crystallised, pungent ginger whose overall heat was the perfect compliment to the delicious Sauternes.
Robert and his brother Freddy manage to combine such a straightforward and practical approach to the seemingly disparate worlds of Vietnamese food and top French wines via one indisputable factor: experience. The restaurant was set up 47 years ago when their parents, evacuated from Saigon once the US pulled out, arrived in Paris and needed to earn a living. The sons took over and Robert, in particular, put his extraordinary palate to writing what is today still an extraordinary wine list.
At this stage, it is probably best for me to state a few negatives about Tan Dinh. It does not have a website; it only takes cash (although this may change in 2016); the wine list is full of changes in all types of ink; and the restaurant itself could do with a lick of paint, particularly the downstairs and the lavatories, both of which are stuffed with cases of wine.
But the 14 grand awards from the Wine Spectator stacked up on the shelf going down to the basement are testimony to all that Robert has achieved over the years and there are plenty of amazing bottles still to be enjoyed. The clarets include five vintages of Petrus, and L’Église-Clinet 1975 at €350; under the heading ‘Divers’ there is a bottle of what is supposed to be the magical 1985 Sassicaia at €500 euros (which Jancis saw on the wine list at the former Leith’s restaurant with my late mother 25 years ago for £30 and did not order it as she thought it ‘too expensive’!); and then there is the list of burgundies. These comprise several closely typed pages of wines which Robert has selected during his many forays to the region and are, probably, unrivalled.
These wines comprise several excellent reasons for anyone reading this to head to Tan Dinh. The fact that it is in Paris is an extra reason.
Tan Dinh, 60 rue de Verneuil, 75007 Paris; tel +33 (0)1 45 44 04 84
Open lunch and dinner Monday – Saturday.