By CJ Katz, for the Leader-Post August 6, 2014
REGINA - It seems like an odd couple chocolate and pho but if you understand the history of Vietnam and the French influence on Vietnamese cooking, it’s not such a wacky marriage.
It was the French who introduced coffee along with the baguette, onions, carrots, and creme caramel to the South-East Asian country, and according to Pho Milu owner, Luanne Truong, Vietnamese pho (pronounced ‘fuh’) is a derivative of the French pot au feu.
“The Vietnamese use the same technique as the beef pot au feu, but we turn it into a noodle soup,” she explains. And although there is a French influence, pho is distinctly Vietnamese and proudly served in every Vietnamese restaurant you’ll visit.
“I like a bowl of hot homemade noodle soup, so I wanted to create a place to sell soup.” Her children love pho too, and it was at their urging that she finally opened the 50-seat shop in early May.
Pho is all about the aromatic and perfectly flavoured broth. The recipes are authentic identical to the soup she serves at home. The beef broth is made from roasted beef bones and shoulder meat along whole onions roasted with ginger. The lot is slowly simmered with aromatics: star anise, coriander seed, cardamom, fennel, whole pepper and cloves. The chicken broth is similarly made, but with significantly lighter amounts of spices.
Pho is simply captivating thanks to the tapestry of flavours that emerge over the many hours of slow, easy simmering. One taste and you’ll be instantly gripped.
Packed to the hilt with vermicelli rice noodles, ultra thin slices of meat, fish or chicken and bright green vegetables, it’s traditionally served with a side of crunchy bean sprouts, lemon slices, and cilantro sprigs.
If you’re a newbie to pho, here are a few pointers. Before you even start playing with the hoisin and sriracha hot chili sauce or adding any of the fresh vegetables, taste the broth. Take a moment to appreciate its subtle layers of flavour. Then pick out a few favourite items and taste those, too. Now, it’s time to play with your food.
Scatter over a small handful of sprouts and torn cilantro sprigs. Add a squirt or two of lemon, but only if you feel the broth needs some oomph. If you want a sweet-spicy boost, squeeze a little hoisin and sriracha sauce into a small bowl, not the soup, and dip in pieces of meat. A well-made broth, though, is often perfect just as is.
Use your chopsticks to lift out some of the vermicelli rice noodles and place them into the spoon. Then slurp away.
Pho Milu offers nine different phos, including the popular Pho Milu special with ultrathin sliced eye-of-the-round beef and beef balls. There are also rare, well-done, flank steak and spicy versions. Try the chicken and vegetarian soups as well as the seafood with crabmeat and fish balls, surimi crab, snow peas and broccoli florets.
Pho is a feel-good soup. It never, ever grows tired. And after you’ve set down your chopsticks and spoon, pushed away the bowl, and leaned back, you’ll feel invigorated and wrapped in a soul-satisfying aura, I predict.
The adjacent chocolate shop is a work in progress. It opened at the same time as the pho café and gleams with two special chocolate coolers and lovely pendant lighting. There is still shelving to go up, an espresso machine to arrive, as well as counters for ice cream and pastries. Plans are in the works to serve espresso, Vietnamese drip coffee and Oriental looseleaf tea.
Nevertheless, all 40 of Martine’s chocolates are elegantly displayed. If you’re looking for a gift, there are wrapped boxes and fun items, such as cute espresso cups filled with chocolates.
I’ve tried every chocolate, frequently buy a box, and often end a meal with a little taste. I’ve yet to have one I don’t enjoy. All are handmade, not overly sweet, and beautifully tempered to give the chocolate a lovely snap. The creamy centres are just the right consistency and sweetness.
“Most of the chocolates use maple syrup instead of sugar, as well as real cream and butter. The chocolate comes from Belgium,” says Truong.
Truong’s Martine Chocolats & Café is the first location outside Quebec. It was during her travels that she tasted the chocolates and convinced owner Lynn Descoteaux to expand beyond la belle province.
“Regina is growing and we need more variety in chocolate shops,” says Truong.
Helping her with the shop is Danny Bougouin, a native of Quebec. He has worked to set the standard in the shop and train staff. After several months he says the most popular is the taste au sucre and the caramel.
But you be the judge. Drop by for a bowl of pho and don’t leave without a box of chocolates to enjoy at home.