‘She’ (could be Olive) who sits at the base of the tallest building

(No.12, Vol.2, Dec 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine, Advertorial)

Photo Elle Cafe

When our editor told me to go to ‘ell’ I wondered just what crime I was guilty of. Then I remembered she is not a lady for dropping her ‘aitches’ and I realised that I had been guilty in my misunderstanding of dropping a final ‘e.’ ‘Elle’, French for ‘she’, is about as famous as Perrier or Chanel as a brand name. I have never read a page, but the woman’s magazine has been prominently displayed in every kiosk news stand in the land as well as beyond at least since I have known ‘La Belle France’ which is 1968. I did not know until recently that it has also spawned a fashion empire as well as a worldwide chain of quintessentially French cafe/restaurants. Run as a franchise, someone has seen fit to open up a branch in Ho Chi Minh City (since June 2012). It sits at the base of the Bitexco building HCMC,Vietnam’s tallest, which soars above Elle into the heavens. This pavement cafe is in the very heart of downtown, but sheltered on a corner of side streets.You will have no trouble hearing your company talk as you sip on your coffee or munch away on lunch. If you are inspired to do a spot of ‘Elle’ shopping afterwards there is a branch of the fashion store on the corner opposite.
It is by no means as easy as it is in Paris to sit out at a pavement cafe in Saigon, sip your beverage and watch the world go by. For sure, there may be some amusement as you watch a goon on a motorbike making his way along the pavement, honking at the obstacle of a pesky pedestrian. However, normally, there will be little peace for you as a succession of other interlopers such as shoeshine lads and flower sellers come by to bother you. No such shenanigans at ‘Elle’, which has a well-cordonned-off raised pavement section.
I sat at this al fresco area and enjoyed my lunch under the whirring of fans. It was a little hot and the manager explained that after all the business people had gone home, this was a well-favoured spot with better-off courting couples. If you do not like the midday heat, there is an inside air-conditioned section. It is well-decorated with fashion items and framed cover pages of the magazine.There are also glass displays of Elle memorabilia for purchase-from mugs and wooden laquer pictures to customised crockery and cruets.
A Vietnamese businessman friend who operates from a nearby tower block recommends this place for coffee and snacks. Had he a western client to entertain, this would be a safe-bet venue to impress him or her. For one thing, there is a wide choice of both local and European dishes here. There are Vietnamese favourites of mine such as ‘ca keo kho to’, small spiny goby fish baked in a clay pot and ‘bun thit nuong’ grilled pork and vermicelli. But it was the French food I had come to try out. I say ‘French’, but there are also Italian pasta dishes and that signature Moroccan dish commonly seen in Paris- couscous or steamed semolina. There are sandwiches from 130,000 to 155,000 dong which include ‘croque monsieur’(grilled ham and cheese) and ‘croque madame’ (the same with a fried egg on top), salads from 150,000 to 180,000 dong, (the goat cheese with baby tomatoes is a novel one for Vietnam) pasta dishes from 150 to 170,000 dong, fish which include fried seabass at 220,000 dong and pan seared salmon for 280,000 dong and a range of beef steaks at around 200,000 dong each.

Pan fried ribeye with garlic, mash potato and red wine sauce

Vegetables stackes with Mozzarella and basil sauce
Photos Elle Cafe

Given these prices, the two-course Western set menu at VND149,000, which is what I opted for, would seem a real bargain.The Vietnamese set menu comes at the snippest of a price at just 69,000 dong. Just as in France, the first thing to arrive at the table and included in the price was the de riguer hot French bread and butter.There was a choice of lentil or soup or a salad of Greek feta cheese lentils and dried tomato.This came ‘a la vinagrette’ and I can only describe it as scrumptious. The main course of seafood spaghtetti (the alternative was a bacon and tomato sandwich) with the aroma and taste of basil and pesto in the sauce and two pinky prawns atop was also, I might say ‘perfetto’. I washed it all down with freshly-squeezed guave juice. (priced at VND75,000)
Now allow me to relate a little story about a condiment that can be misunderstood even by Europeans. Although the food was well seasoned enough, if I am eating French I like to see olive oil on the table. There is a very well known American pizza chain here in Vietnam at which I have eaten (once only) that could not find any! I was relieved that the waitress who understood my request for ‘dau oliu’, and with only the merest hesitation, gladly went to the kitchen to fetch some. I have had this served before in Saigon the way the Vietnamese serve their sauces- in a small dish. All kudos to Elle that it came here ‘comme il faut’ in in a quaint crockery cruet. Still not quite believing my luck I poured out a sample. The colour pale green was not right and the taste was slighly acrid. ‘Could you bring me the actual bottle,’ I asked the waitress.She happily did so, producing a large can of ‘Sanza’ olive oil. This grade ‘made from the pressed waste from which oil has been extracted and from which a debased type of oil may be obtained’*, should generally be used for cooking only. Only extra virgin olive oil with its great taste, health benefits and acidity of less than 0.2 per cent is suitable for the table. I explained this to the manager for whom it was indeed news and he graciously rectified matters.
I am grateful-with the Friar Tuck paunch that fine living has bestowed upon me-that in Vietnam, a meal is usually finished with fresh fruit. Here I went against doctor’s orders. (Really, dear reader the life-threatening situations I put myself through just to bring information and entertainment to your good self). What a glutton I was ordering that gorgeous Italian calorie bomb that goes by the name of Tiramisu cake (VND80,000). And with what did I accompany it but a liqueur coffee, selecting from a list of such-all at 120,000 dong- ‘The Royal’ which pitches Galliano against caffeine.
I conclude with the word ‘Eureka’. Not that I had need of this discovery,enjoying as I do the wonderful home cooking that my Vietnamese wife provides, but you, my less fortunate reader, may well do. At last, amid the raucous ‘all human life is here’ kerfuffle of HCMC, I have found transplanted from France and plonked down at the foot of an edifice to rival the Pompidou Centre a place where one can relax and enjoy fine food and patisserie with none of the rude reputation that ‘Gaie Paris’ has perhaps unjustifiably aquired. No, the service here with its cheerful dedication to satifying the eccentric demand of a European for the hitherto unheard of notion of the right type of olive oil is as impeccable as the food and beverage. Dear reader, forget about ‘eaven’ and pray that you too may be lucky enough one day to go to ‘Elle.’

Elle Cafe
Ground floor of the Bitexco Tower,
45 Ngo Duc Ke (corner Ngo Duc Ke and Ho Tung Mau streets) District 1 Ho Chi Minh City.
The prices do not include VAT
and service charge.
*Quote from ‘Olive Oil’ by Charles Quest-Ritzon. Published by Doring Kindersly 2006

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