Chef of the Year: At Berlu, Vince Nguyen Stretches the Definition of Vietnamese Cooking
ietnamese tasting menus are rare in America. Berlu, which we raved about back in March, adds another dimension—casually refined, and like Portland, eccentric to the core. A night here will include tradition, impressive technique, trippy originals, something in a test tube, and cooking that can blur the line between life and dessert. The backdrop for this is a 15-seat chamber rendered entirely in eggshell-white hues. Tame Impala sings overhead like a pop psychedelic heavenly choir. Dairy and gluten are off the menu.
One recent evening, we munch smoky-toasted rice paper crackers, corn-laced pandan waffles, and other house spins on Vietnamese street-food snacks to set the mood for the meal. Then, a throat clearing. Attention, eaters! All eyes focus on Vince Nguyen, plating dishes with the intensity of a surgeon performing a craniectomy. You feel the slight nervousness, the drive to be the best he can be, especially since Nguyen, once a devout French-modern minimalist, put Vietnamese flavors front and center late last year.
“Tonight,” he says quietly, “our first plated course is frozen durian frozen custard with two melons and a melon-shiitake tea. Hope you enjoy it.”
That means tonight’s opening lob is ice cream—ice cream! With this, Berlu defies our expectations of dinner and stretches the definition of a beloved cuisine. The scoop, lush and floral, dances over peak-season melon balls and floating circles of roasted mushrooms and betel leaves. Once you taste it, you won’t forget it.
Ten dishes later, the night closes with another surprise: the world's wildest bread and caviar service. Behold honeycomb cake toast, banana butter, and caviar swirled in coconut cream and fried shallots.
This year, Nguyen located his inner rebel, and Portland is lucky for it. As he puts it: “Vietnamese cuisines, cultures revolve around respect. I was raised not to question anything. My cooking is a form of rebellion. I’m going against tradition, but still trying to pay respect.”
Not every dish is a high. I’d love to see Berlu lean more into herbs and land an occasional assertive flavor blow. But if more reach Berlu’s peaks, we’ll never get in. LA food hound Thomas Tseng, who flies anywhere for a great meal, offered this perspective after a visit: “For modern Vietnamese food, the list isn’t large. Some places in LA do it well but play it safe. We need people to push boundaries. Vince is a singular voice. I can’t think of anything on this level of ambition.”
It’s a fitting tribute to Portland Monthly’s Chef of the Year. As the city’s food scene looks to the future, Berlu is a place we can believe in. 605 SE Belmont St, berlupdx.com