In the span of a little more than two years, chef Tung Phan has taken his French-Vietnamese concept from residency pop-up at East End Market to its very own permanent (and strikingly handsome) house of fine dining in Baldwin Park. No question Camille, named after Phan's first-born daughter, is the sort of restaurant that's been intentionally and systematically designed, planned and curated to attract the sparkle of Michelin stars and James Beard Awards. Seductive trappings? Check. Chef's tasting counter? Check. Matching uniforms, flowers tweezered onto plates? Check and double-check. But all this extra-ness doesn't change the fact that food quality and customer care at Camille are put ahead of nailing a tire company's red plaque up on a wall.
In fact, I had to declare Phan's chim cút the "Best Tasting Menu Dish" of the year in the 2023 Best of Orlando® Staff Picks, after partaking in Camille's summer tasting menu (10 courses for the rarefied price of $195) back in June. The air-dried, lemongrass-brined quail, stuffed with Vietnamese broken rice and served with a scallion and ginger puree with pickled ramps and confit of quail leg, was a paragon of the Franco-Indochine dishes Phan elevates to an artform. Bánh xèo, the crepe-like Viet staple in which pork, shrimp, onions and bean sprouts are stuffed into a savory sleeve, is reimagined here with chunks of Florida spiny lobster positioned onto a ring of pesto fashioned from Thai basil, cilantro, culantro and roasted garlic. Shards of tuile are carefully balanced on the lobster, while a passionfruit nước chấm with bourbon barrel-aged fish sauce is spooned into the center. It's a rich and crackling mouth-puckerer of a dish. Photogenic as hell, too.
More stunning displays: a trio of small indulgences, or "ăn chơi," comprising a tea egg in a nest made of feuille de brick pastry feathered with shaved black truffle; an intricate "Bánh mì" tartlet layered with pâté foam, kaluga caviar and wee rolls of pickled beet and radish; and moulard duck wrapped in local greens and squash blossoms served with a delicate black sesame-hoisin dip.
The creations all tap into Phan's flavor memories and, in turn, make memorable dishes themselves. We won't easily forget Dungeness crab prepared two ways — as a bite-sized tart dressed with salad burnet leaves, Thai chili threads and a makrut lime vinaigrette; and as a curry crafted from the crab's tomalley thickened with tapioca. A5 wagyu, naturally, found its way onto the menu, but so did mutton snapper in coconut sauce, as well as a palate-cleanser of watermelon sorbet layered on coconut panna cotta with pickled watermelon rind, a white chocolate disc and bird's-eye chili salt. The procession ended with banana cake inlaid with Chantilly served over a brush of ginger caramel, capping what was easily one of the most original meals I've had in this city.
On a much-anticipated return visit, we opted for an intimate booth in the dining room for a seven-courser ($135) that spotlighted a few new dishes — a sheet of semolina pasta cloaking short rib braised in aromatics à la bò kho, or Vietnamese beef stew, for one. Japanese pumpkin kept it seasonal, while spiced pumpkin seeds added just the right amount of crunch. There was squab from South Carolina served with a block of Vietnamese sticky rice. A plum wine gastrique and drops of 100-year-old balsamic ($30 upcharge) lent the dark-fleshed bird the bite it needed.
No doubt Phan can sauce — there hasn't been a dish of his where I haven't boorishly fingered every lick of slick from the plate. A thickened puddle of fishbone stock bolstered with tamarind, tomato, pineapple and chili was no exception. It pooled around "noodles" cut from king trumpet mushrooms holding Antarctic salmon and salmon skin dotted with crème fraîche, salmon roe and Cajun seasoning. A silky liquid of palm sugar and fish sauce fortified the Australian wagyu, while a Vietnamese coffee-crème anglaise nearly upstaged the sweet potato bread with candied pecans and "gold" ice cream made from caramelized milk solids and white chocolate. A sake "tasting" ($130 for six) overseen by beverage director Derrick Goodman can make a special meal all the more special (and a pricey meal all the pricier).
But Phan's ultimate goal is to leave his guests with a sense of the historical connection of France and Vietnam and, as an extension, of the effects the colonizer has on the colonized, and vice-versa. And in today's world, the poignancy of Phan's message is not lost.
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