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Le Jardin Manila: A passion for French cuisine

Le Jardin Manila’s braised lamb shank Photos by JOEY MENDOZA

 

If there is a language of love, there must also be a language of cooking and eating. Forty minutes outside Saigon, French chef and sommelier Gils Brault taught “kitchen French” to his cooks and used it to converse with his diners when he opened his highly successful Les Trois Gourmand restaurant in 1995.

It’s part gestures, part French, part English. His Vietnamese staff spoke neither English nor French and he didn’t speak Vietnamese or much English. But they understood each other perfectly as they cooked food that would land Les Trois Gourmands on Lonely Planet’s list of the best restaurants in Vietnam — dishes like assiette de trois  foie gras (French duck liver three ways), souris d’agneau (braised lamb shank) and coq au vin (chicken in red wine and bacon).   

Prior to Vietnam, Gils had decades-long experience working with Alain Ducasse, cooking for then French President Jacques Chirac in a restaurant owned by Chirac’s cousin that Gils was hired to “save,” and having his own restaurants on the French Riviera. 

In 2007, businessman Duke Ng and his wife Irene went to Ho Chi Minh City for a vacation and were looking for a restaurant to celebrate Duke’s birthday. C’est un peu curieux, non? Isn’t it a bit odd for him to be looking for something other than Vietnamese cuisine when that in itself is so good all over Saigon? Duke says he wasn’t looking for any particular cuisine, but Lonely Planet’s list and recommendations on Tripadvisor caught his eye and they made the trip out to the countryside. 

“There were two French restaurants on the list and just out of gut feel I picked Gils’,” says Duke. “We had the meal of our lives. It was a fantastic experience, the food was perfect. And the whole time we were eating, Gils was talking to us and other diners. At the end of the meal I thought, if he was with us, who was cooking? I asked to see his kitchen and it was all Vietnamese cooks that he had trained. I thought, if he could train the Vietnameses who didn’t speak French or English and he didn’t speak English, we could bring this fantastic experience to Manila.”

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But Gils wasn’t interested in opening a restaurant outside Vietnam — in fact, in the six years that it took Duke persuade him, about 10 Filipino restaurateurs had tried to talk him into opening in Manila — until Duke made subsequent trips to Vietnam — just to eat at his restaurants and not talk business. And then Gils made a trip to Manila and Duke took him to the places he and his wife love, from high- end restaurants to dampa.

 

 

On his second trip to Manila, Gils brought a Frenchman with him who spoke English and basically told Duke: “If I’m going to open a restaurant in the Philippines, it would be with your group because I know you’re a gourmand.”

And so was born Le Jardin Manila: Cuisine de Gils of Trois Gourmands, located at the Penthouse of W Fifth building in Bonifacio Global City. It’s a warm, welcoming, wonderful space with a countryside feel and amazing views of Ortigas.  

Gils trained Filipino chefs Jonas Ng and Hasset Go in his Trois Gourmands kitchen. The two chefs — who had previously worked with chef Ed Quimson and had their own restaurants before Le Jardin — literally lived with Gils (the restaurant in Vietnam is also his house) for six months starting last year to learn French cuisine.

“He taught us from morning till night, with only Monday as our day off when the restaurant was closed,” says Jonas. “We’d wake up at 8 in the morning to make cheese and bread. Gils told us to not do the simplest stuff — leave that to the bistros, to the brasseries — because people come to our restaurant to eat things that are not available elsewhere. We want to do everything from scratch because that way we get to control exactly how we want it, and we want people who love to eat here, to have that gourmand experience, whether it’s for a long lunch with good wines or a special dinner.”

Le Jardin Manila offers three set menus, from three courses to five (P2,200, P2,800 and P3,200), to give diners a very filling sampling of French cuisine.

For our lunch with a small group of journalists, we started with the amuse bouche of truffled scrambled eggs, and then had a choice of warm or cold appetizers and tried each other’s choices — the duck liver three ways, house-smoked salmon, escargot, cabbage stuffed with duck confit and foie gras sauce, and crab tartare. Gorgeously plated, the taste was even better — enveloping all our senses and playing with our palates.

One secret to a good restaurant, as everyone knows, is having the freshest ingredients. Gils cares more about this than importing everything from France. Jonas says that while the foie gras comes from France, the duck is from an organic farm in Davao, the oysters are from Aklan, and the tuna from General Santos. “Why import when we can get the freshest from here? We go with wherever is the best,” Jonas says.

Our group’s main courses include grilled tuna steak with foie gras and truffle sauce, braised lamb shank, duck leg confit, and grilled US beef tenderloin with peppercorn sauce. I had one of the most tender and tastiest tenderloins ever and Gils beamed proudly as we heaped praise on his dishes — cooked by chefs Jonas and Hasset.

These are the recipes he’s been perfecting since he started working in the restaurants in France since he was 14, starting as a server and willingly helping out in the kitchen until he began cooking.

Gils’ lamb shank is legendary. It can make people stay.

Several months ago, Duke Ng was looking for a French national to help run Le Jardin and train the wait staff. The French Chamber of Commerce in the Philippines introduced him to a student who was traveling around Asia — well, at least that was her plan. Claire Tinel had left France to study in Canada. This summer she was planning to travel around Asia for three months and her first stop was the Philippines. When Duke met her in Manila through a French friend working with the chamber, he invited her to Le Jardin…and they got her at lamb shank.

Out went her plan to travel around Asia — she hasn’t left Manila since that lamb shank. Really? you may ask, she stayed on the strength of Gils’ lamb shank? Well, pourquoi pas? Why not? If gourmands travel the world to eat, wouldn’t they stay for food too?

“We asked Claire to train the staff for great customer service and help them gain confidence so they feel that they’re welcoming diners into their own homes and enjoy their meal,” says Duke.

That’s not so simple when it comes to foreign cuisine, especially French cuisine, where many customers tend to ask the staff for recommendations.

“They had to taste all the food because most of them didn’t know what truffle or foie gras is, and if we have a new item on the menu they’re the first one to taste it, because they cannot serve it if they don’t know it. When you have too many rules, it doesn’t work all the time. We made it very simple: make the guests happy and that’s why we have very good service.”

Claire also helps design special events at Le Jardin, from product launches to embassy meetings and marriage proposals. For the recent launching of Shu Uemura’s Le Choupette collection, chef Hasset Go — who does all the pastries and cakes for Le Jardin — made macarons with cat drawings on top; for another themed event they made pink cocktails.  

And finally, we got to the desserts after taking bites out of each other’s main courses. But before that — a platter of cheeses made at Le Jardin’s cheese room upstairs.

“It’s Gils’ formula and it’s one type of cheese but flavored in different ways and served at different points of aging,” explains Jonas. “When we were training in Trois Gourmands, it was the first thing we did in the morning and the last thing we checked at night. Of course it’s easier if we just import the cheeses, but this is Gils — his attention to detail is astounding.”

Our platter consists of cheeses with rosemary and peppercorns, black olives, chives, ash, plain, and with nuts and herbs.

But before that — a platter of cheeses made at Le Jardin’s cheese room upstairs, the way Gils makes them in Vietnam. But we must try other things, they insist. The chocolate fondant is moist and perfect with vanilla bean ice cream; the tarte tatin is a nice combination of the apple filling and crustiness made the French way; and of course the crème brulée is perfect.

It’s not every day that one can afford to eat like this (okay, some people can) and Le Jardin takes the stuffiness out of French restaurants and simply concentrates on the food. It’s authentic French style, says Gils, but it’s also experimental in a way — he’s makes spring rolls with foie gras.

Gils Brault strikes you as one who has a very generous spirit and doesn’t like convention much. For instance, his wine list is handpicked only by him, he doesn’t care what the other experts have on their lists. The chef-sommelier travels to France and visits the vineyards and imports the wines for both Trois Gourmands and Le Jardin.

For the season, Le Jardin offers Christmas baskets for gift giving. They include Gils’ handpicked wines and Champagnes, cheeses and potted foie gras with figs, rillete, fruitcake, and vinaigrette with truffle oil that they make at Le Jardin. Prices are P15,000 (one jar of foie gras aux figue  [potted foie gras with figs], one  jar of confiture de Noël [Christmas jam of nuts and dried fruits], one jar of rillette de canard [potted duck confit], one cake aux fruits [sticky walnut fruitcake], four  fromages maison, one  bottle de vinaigrette maison aux truffes [truffle oil, mustard, lemon juice, and extra virgin olive oil salad dressing], one  bottle of Château Vieux Touron Monbazillac 2008, and one  bottle of Nicolas Feuillate Champagne Brut Reserve); and P10,000 (which includes one jar of foie gras aux figue, one  jar of confiture de Noël, one  jar of rillette de canard, one cake aux fruits, four fromages maison, one  bottle de vinaigrette maison aux truffes, and one  bottle  of Château Piéguë Cremant de Loire). Or you can decide on the contents of your basket when you visit Le Jardin.

The two chefs Jonas and Hasset, and Duke all say that working with Gils has taught them not just about food but also about passion and life.

 “I asked him why he was doing this — because it seems like things can be simplified if he wanted to but his incredible attention to detail and his passion wouldn’t let him,” Duke says. “And his answer is to simply see his customers’ smile when they eat his food.”

Comme il faut. As it should be.

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Le Jardin Manila is located at the Penthouse of W Fifth Building, 5th Avenue corner 32nd St., Bonifacio Global City, Taguig. It is open from Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Call 0917-817-6584, log on to www.lejardinbgc.com

 

 

 

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