“Unraveling Taste” is a monthly series illustrating the personal narratives of chefs, innovators and the ingredients at their disposal.
“I always cherished a wish to convey the spirit of the Tet celebration with a modern touch,” says chef Thuan Tran of Esta Eatery. He stands behind the counter, preparing for the night’s service while backed by a quiet, but disciplined staff. “With Esta’s special touch” he adds.
Esta Eatery is located on a residential street, nestled away in a quiet corner of District 1. A delicate curtain of red sways by the entrance, and inside the interior contrasts shade and light: a moody yet comfortable enclave. The feeling is akin to walking through a private gallery, with the spectacle being fire rising from ash-white wood and throwing sparks into the open air. Darkly-clad cooks fan the glowing embers, shifting back and forth like shadows and speaking in lowered voices. The seats invite leaning back, and the best ones at the counter feel as if there is no counter at all: steps away, chef Thuan tends to three, four different plates, the dishes to be served for the first course.
“As a restaurant, we have always explored and experimented with the beauties of nature for inspiration. The more deeply we understand the landscape and ingredients, the more tools we have to transform Vietnamese food. In the end, we also nurture our imagination, taking this cuisine which is still quite tradition-based, further than it has ever gone.” A lover of the outdoors, Francis holds a personal connection with nature. His moments out of the kitchen find him immersed in markets, in the countryside, or otherwise in some unmarked, yet remarkable post.
“With everything we have learned, we finally realized a special Tet menu for this year. It’s about time, and we would be sorry to miss the opportunity. This menu specifically, I wanted to define the five themes that are most important to the holiday: Good Favor, Peace, Joy, Luck and Union.”
“To bring in the joyful spirit of Tet during this difficult year, we want to focus on customer service and creating a cozy, fun atmosphere for our guests. Of course, we include the staff as well: this season, the Esta team has arranged activities such as decorating the restaurant and writing greetings. Most specially, Esta has cooperated with Dong Ho Vietnam to launch a series of paintings depicting the special customs surrounding Tet.”
“Furthermore, Esta Eatery will prepare programs corresponding to each special day’s activity as illustrated in each picture set. For example on the 23rd of Tet according to the Lunar calendar, there will be music and traditional fruit and jam trays.”
It seems they mean to, as they say, go all out. Paintings, lavish red decorations, even the air sparks of celebration and anticipation, but the most expressive storytelling is the part without words. The menu unfolds with the first series, “Good Favor.”
“With the first courses, I want to welcome diners as I would for guests at a Tet celebration, which is always with a five-fruit tray. We serve these as a wish for a full, prosperous year. Using the traditional quintet of soursop, fig, coconut, papaya and mango, we process each fruit to bring an experience both familiar and new.”
The first bite delivers full-cream coconut foam and coconut flesh: immediately enriching on the palate, but gone before it overwhelms thanks to the appropriate use of foam. The crisp tart shatters into an impression of toasted coconut, while caviar pearls deepen the experience with nuanced salt.
A deep-fried piece of mango contrasts creamy interiors with a crust that shatters, intensely complex with the addition of nori seaweed and uni miso. Meanwhile, fresh papaya provides a deep, cleansing drink of intense sweetness.
With creamy figs adorning even creamier stracciatella cheese, this dish combines many techniques for an experience that is undefinable: true fusion. The cheese comes perfumed with the smoldering musk of truffle, and combined with crisped cheese, a bite with every component exudes a sense of completion. Good favor, indeed.
“Apart from the five-fruit tray, the watermelon is also a meaningful fruit that holds special importance during Tet, its bright red color representing luck. That is why I include it under the “Joy” series, as displaying and gifting watermelon shows the wish for happiness and luck.”
Strikingly red, the dish nestles delicate watermelon with crushed ice made from lacto-fermented tomatoes. The kitchen cures the watermelon between kelp, a Japanese process called “kombujime” that lends nuance and umami to the otherwise one-note sweet fruit. Impressions from the first bite departs completely from any Tet-related notion, instead provoking delighted surprise: the watermelon contains a savor undertone while balanced with its natural sweetness, and the crushed tomato ferment wraps it all up with a cleansing tartness.
Course after course, the story unfolds and branches. And somehow, the menu feels less about Tet, and rather about Chef Thuan’s personal vision of the sensibilities surrounding the holiday. One can sense behind each dish the inspiration, rather than the imitation: instead of embodying a solid feature of the Lunar New Year, the food takes on the spirit of the chef.
A brief lull ensues before the main course. On a single plate, Thuan spreads pink slices of duck alongside pork cheek and a charred lobe of veal sweetbread. He scatters them with imperceptible fragments of salt, serving them with rice cakes and herbs.
“This banh dap, a specialty of Hoi An, still keeps all the authentic textures of the traditional rice cakes. But for Esta’s version, I serve it with three different proteins so that every combination paints a different image. This course represents my Luck theme, and I hope diners find the taste combination that suits them most.”
There’s a certain wonder sitting in Esta’s refined dining room with this make-yourself affair, presented with a spread of three separate plates all for one. Circumstantial? Perhaps, and with no time to lose: each bite tells a different story, with the duck providing some dry-aged funk, the pork jowl an almost juice-filled crunch, and the sweetbread, the best, popped into creamy submission. Juices will run down the elbows, but without a doubt, the experience leaves one with a sense of quiet prosperity.
“At the end of the long celebrations, everyone gathers to enjoy a cup of hot tea and with fruit jams. It’s light, revitalizing, and of course there is always conversation and laughter,” Thuan relates, pouring daisy wintermelon tea over a visual splendor of fruit and jelly. “I want guests to leave with the most important feeling of Tet, the sense of Union. All the traditions and festivities live on because families come together to share this experience together. “
A slice of blood orange lends puckering zing, followed by floral wintermelon. Next comes even sweeter lychee, enclosing a single lotus seed. Preserved persimmon is the sweetest of all, full-bodied with notes of honey. The feast (indeed, a feast) ends with a clean almond jelly.
The vision for Tet comes full circle, an impression familiar neither to tradition nor memory. But it takes on the values that anyone can relate to, if not further enriching one’s perception of what embodies the spirit of Tet. The menu pulls freely from nature and transforms the ingredients, in true Esta form, underscored by the perceptible emotions of the chef behind each dish.