Vince Nguyen's minimalist cuisine puts the "beautiful" in "beautifully ugly."
Vince Nguyen was going to be a pediatrician. At age 21, he was close to beginning medical school at UCLA. He spent the summer working in catering as a server.
"They needed help in the kitchen one day because someone didn't show up for work," Nguyen says. "I did that, and apparently I fell in love with cooking. A week later, I dropped out of medical school and signed up for culinary school."
Fast-forward nine years, and Nguyen is in Portland, making some of the most striking food in the city at JolieLaide, the weekly pop-up dinner that he runs on Monday nights and that we've named runner-up pop-up of the year.
His food at JolieLaide ("beautifully ugly" in French) is restrained and intensely flavorful. A slice of sweet potato slow-cooked to buttery softness and caramelized is served alongside a quenelle of pureed pear and garnished with a leaf of papalo, an herb that tastes like a cross between mint and cilantro. That sweet potato is as rich as rib-eye and blooming with earthen sweetness, and the pear puree is as abstractly "pear" as Clear Creek's eau de vie.
You'll be eating dishes as refined and meticulous as that sweet potato for 90 minutes. A tomato water sorbet aerated and sliced into pillowy chunks, served with mussel mousse and grated black lime is as light and sharply refreshing as it is stunning to behold. For dessert, fresh Canadice grapes are served with bay oil and a shattered, nitrogen-frozen sabayon that dissolves into rich cream on the tongue. Capping the meal, a deeply savory parsnip tea is swirled with juniper oil to evoke the smell of a pine forest in fall.
"I can't handle a lot of flavors," Nguyen says. "And I'm not one to just put things on a dish for aesthetic purposes. I want each component to have two or three qualities beyond just aesthetic, beyond just the flavor. That's what allows the food to be so minimalistic. When you're so vegetable-driven and quality-driven and you have such great ingredients, you don't need to hide, you just need to push."
After a few courses at JolieLaide, you'll notice that meat plays a minimal part in Nguyen's dishes. "I love fish and I love cooking fish," he says, "but Portland is one of the best places for produce. Vegetables are what define me."
Nguyen gets his ingredients for Monday's meal at the Saturday farmers market at Portland State University, where he picks the vegetables. "Monday is the last day I would serve a vegetable I bought at the market," he says. "I'm buying the best, but everyday the quality dissipates. When it's something so simple, those days matter to me."
Nguyen's résumé is among the most impressive in Portland, having worked at Michelin-starred restaurants Providence in Los Angeles, Noma in Copenhagen and Coi in San Francisco, where he served as sous chef. Nguyen has worked under both Matt Lightner and Justin Woodward at Portland's temple of high gastronomy, Castagna, where he most recently worked as sous chef before opening JolieLaide in October 2015.
When he isn't running JolieLaide, Nguyen works at South Waterfront's Frank Wine and Flower, where at the wine bar he often prepares simplified versions of the dishes he serves at his pop-up. The next step is to find a space to serve his dinners more regularly, with the ultimate goal of opening a world-class restaurant in Oregon's wine country.
"I see a lot of potential in wine country," Nguyen says. "I think everyone out there is afraid, because no one out there has done anything special. There's a lot of potential, and I think someone needs to be out there to start it. My main goal is to attract more national and international skill. That's how it will survive."
Until that time comes, JolieLaide is one of Portland's most singular dining experiences.
6 SE 28th Ave. (in the Langbaan space inside PaaDee), jolielaidepdx.com. Dinner seatings at 6 and 7:30 pm Monday. Tickets are $80 plus gratuity. Drinks priced separately.
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