“An” means to “eat” in Vietnamese, and all those in attendance this past Monday at AnQi for a special lunch did just that. The occasion was the release of the House of An’s first cookbook, the stylish an: to eat: Recipes and Stories from a Vietnamese Family Kitchen. A live cooking demonstration highlighted just some of Helene An’s signature, pioneering fusion of modern, Vietnamese and French cuisine accompanied by the heartfelt tales of Helene’s daughter, Jacqueline, revealing the influence and history behind the recipes.
Conversations began with perfect bite-sized hors d’oeuvres of crab puffs and filet mignon on sesame crisps, followed by a tableside demonstration that had everyone enthralled. Helene officially kicked off the program with a classic caramelized black cod, seared judiciously in fish sauce and sweet caramel. Layered over a small bed of rice, it was a delicate comfort dish served with a side of pickled vegetables.
Next came the most inspiring dish of the luncheon: shredded chicken ruoc, a thin disk of rice topped by a pillow of briny dried chicken. This seemingly plain dish holds a special meaning for the Ans; when fleeing the turmoil of Vietnam, this dish provided the family with nourishment and sustenance. Jacqueline recounted to guests her family making this dish in large batches because it was the only food that would survive spoilage while on the run.
Concluding the live cooking demonstration was precisely cubed Vietnamese steak tartare drizzled in honey truffle dijon sauce, served on a crispy crostini. The dijon added a subtle kick to the lovely raw beef, which had Vietnamese coriander leaves and capers intertwined between each sliver of meat, adding a welcoming freshness.
Then came the plated courses. First up was Helene’s French onion pho with beef ravioli, which she served at a James Beard dinner a couple of years back. “It’s all about the broth!” Helene’s daughter, Elizabeth, exclaimed, drawing a smile from Helene. The simplicity of the light broth paired nicely with the rich roasted bone marrow, and a Gruyere crisp held up well for dipping. The creative ravioli was beef pho reduced to one decadent bite, and the caramelized onions added a buttery flavor to the dish.
The second course was served family-style, which changed the dynamic of the lunch from a formal affair into something more informal and fun. First in the rotation was a warm goji berry-brown rice salad. The savory mushrooms, substantial yet light, complemented the sauteed salad and tart goji berries. Next came grilled Mongolian lamb lollipops. Generously sized, they were were marinated in a sumptuous hoisin BBQ sauce and grilled to a tender medium rare. Mango lobster salad followed: sweet meat laying in a bed of tangy dressed greens and tossed with juicy mango slices.
Oven-roasted lemongrass chicken atop an oval tray of leafy greens followed.. The aromatic lemongrass paste lent the moist chicken a zesty, herbaceous flavor. The An family reminded everyone that behind every dish is a story, at which point Helene brought out spicy chicken & shrimp ramen in cognac XO sauce. She told the group that her mother loved spicy food, and this dish’s heat factor lightly zinged with bird’s eye chili. The mince meat in the noodles was reminiscent of Thai larb, pungent and addicting. Completing the meat trio were coconut spare ribs, morsels of braised pork marinated in coconut-flavored soda.
Dessert was a light cake topped with coconut, strawberry sauce and seasonal berries, and with it, everyone got a copy of an: to eat. The lunch was beautiful to watch and consume, and the book is an extraordinary collection of recipes that tell the inspiring An story (stay tuned for their interview with Evan Kleiman on KCRW soon). With 100 recipes for making your favorite House of An dishes, it’s a great testament to one family’s legacy—and on sale now. Grab a copy, make some dishes at home—then go to AnQi to taste the real deal.
Cynthia Rebolledo covers anything and everything food, culture and spirits.