Chorney-Booth: Bonjour Saigon makes a Vietnamese-French connection

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As a French-trained chef with a robust resume, Danny Ta could easily be cooking fine dining fare at a big hotel or fancy golf course. But these days, the chef spends his time in a strip mall that straddles Brentwood and Dalhousie in northwest Calgary, slinging breakfast dishes as well as relatively humble lunches and dinners. Ta’s new 25-seat restaurant Bonjour Saigon may be small and intentionally unassuming, but the chef could not be happier as he cooks the food that is most meaningful to him as a person.

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Ta moved to Calgary from Winnipeg two years ago, immediately falling in love with the creativity and diversity of our food scene. Wanting to create something from his heart, he decided to turn to his Vietnamese background for his new business, which opened last October. Knowing most Calgarians are already more than well-acquainted with the ubiquitous pho noodle soup, he’s choosing to use his skills to show a different side of Vietnamese cuisine, with a special emphasis on the French influences in Vietnamese food.

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Rachelle Fontanila (prep cook), Danny Ta and Ash Burn (front of house/server) behind the counter at Bonjour Saigon in northwest Calgary. Jim Wells/Postmedia Jim Wells/Postmedia

“I haven’t cooked Vietnamese food at any point during my entire career – this is my first Vietnamese place,” he says. “I was trained in French and Italian cuisine, but Vietnamese food has such a history with French cuisine. It’s great to showcase some food that most people have not seen, from a Vietnamese perspective.”

Bonjour Saigon’s name is, of course, a reference to that French/Vietnamese connection. While most of the Vietnamese dishes that North Americans know well involve French ingredients or techniques stemming from France’s colonization of Vietnam – think the rich beef broth of pho and the baguettes that form the backbone of banh mi subs – Ta wanted to use his food to explore the food relationship between the two countries even further.

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Beef stew and homemade bread for dipping at Bonjour Saigon. The recipe for the stew is from his mom and was originally made in the family many years ago. Jim Wells/Postmedia Jim Wells/Postmedia

Rather than going high-end, as we’ve seen with some other restaurateurs expanding the perception of Vietnamese food in Calgary, Ta opted to take things casual, keeping his price point accessible, but that doesn’t mean the food and atmosphere of Bonjour Saigon isn’t of a high standard. Ironically, the restaurant space was formerly occupied by a pho spot, but Ta has transformed it into a sweet little cafe with cozy seating. With a collection of vintage mugs, a homey vibe, and the chef himself often standing behind the counter to greet guests, the personal nature of the restaurant is a big part of its appeal.

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Vietnamese coffee at Bonjour Saigon in northwest Calgary. Jim Wells/Postmedia Jim Wells/Postmedia

One of the cornerstones of the menu is the bò hâm ($15), a family recipe that originated with Ta’s grandfather and was passed down to his mom, who then taught him how to make it. The dish is a traditional rich French beef stew made even better with Vietnamese flavours and vegetables. In addition to serving the aromatic stew as an entree over rice noodles or with a baguette, Ta has developed a beef brisket sandwich ($13) that comes with a side of stew for dipping, bringing a new dimension to the idea of a French dip.

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A portion of the menu is displayed at Bonjour Saigon. Jim Wells/Postmedia Jim Wells/Postmedia

The rest of Bonjour Saigon’s lunch and dinner menu is similarly comforting, with dishes like salad rolls ($9), charbroiled skewers ($12), interesting takes on banh mi and other sandwiches ($13) and noodle bowls ($15). Ta also does a popular breakfast service, with Vietnamese flavours playing into traditional Western breakfast items to varying degrees. Ta’s love of pancakes is well represented ($10, which includes eggs, coffee or tea, a side, and maple butter cream sauce) and there’s also a Vietnamese marinated steak and eggs ($14), and a hearty banh mi hash bowl with ham, paté, butter sauce, and a side of baguette ($12).

Ta is a talented chef with big ideas, so expect an evolving menu with new dishes emerging over time. For now, Bonjour Saigon is open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, with a special weekend brunch menu. The restaurant is located at #3, 3616 52nd Ave. N.W. and can be reached at 403-732-6072 or through bonjoursaigonyyc.com. Reservations are accepted and Bonjour Saigon also offers catering options.

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Viet steak and eggs plate at Bonjour Saigon in northwest Calgary. Jim Wells/Postmedia Jim Wells/Postmedia

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In other restaurant news, April is upon us, which means it’s time for Filipino Restaurant Month in Canada. Restaurants across the country will be offering special prix fixe menus to help introduce diners to the deliciousness and diversity of Filipino food. Calgary, which has a particularly vibrant Filipino community, has the most participating restaurants of any city. Look for celebratory menus at restaurants like Amihan Grill and Bakeshop, Chopstix, Nan’s Noodle House, and a handful of others, as well as Kain Tayo in Canmore. For more information, visit filipinorestaurantmonth.ca.

Finally, River Cafe will be hosting its Roots and Shoots dinner on April 25. This celebration of local ingredients and sustainability will feature courses by the restaurant’s own Scott MacKenzie, as well as guest chefs from Rouge, Concorde Group, Teatro, and Toronto’s esteemed Canoe restaurant. Tickets are $225 per person and include canapés, a six-course dinner with wine pairing, and a welcome cocktail. For more information, visit river-cafe.com.

Elizabeth Chorney-Booth can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Instagram at @elizabooth or sign up for her newsletter at hungrycalgary.substack.com.

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