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Camille does a star turn in Baldwin Park

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Two years ago, when Camille was named Restaurant of the Year in the Orlando Sentinel Foodie Awards, Tung Phan told me a story in which a motivated but directionless young chef sought focus and found it when he landed at the base of an culinary K2: Victoria & Albert’s, the most prestigious restaurant in Walt Disney World.

“It was a tough kitchen,” he said, noting its military precision, the desire and drive of his fellow cooks. “I wanted to be in a place where everyone was better than me, where I was the weakest, the one at the bottom.”

He’s not there anymore.

2024 Orlando Sentinel Foodie Awards winners: Summer quarter

This year, I watched Phan accept a Michelin star for Camille, the French-Vietnamese concept he began developing at East End Market in 2022, which now has an elegant little home of its own in Baldwin Park.

Minutes later, on the very same stage, the team at Victoria & Albert’s accepted their own.

Camille is now its own prominence, with its own young climbers, but Phan’s still young, too.

His pride in achievement — his is the only Michelin-starred Vietnamese restaurant in the nation — has not tempered his desire to push boundaries, learn more, do better.

Fans of the espuma de pho from Camille's East End Market days will marvel at the soup's evolution. The addition of beef tongue on this night took it over the top. (Amy Drew Thompson/Orlando Sentinel)
Fans of the espuma de pho from Camille’s East End Market days will marvel at the soup’s evolution. The addition of beef tongue on this night took it over the top. (Amy Drew Thompson/Orlando Sentinel)

Whether he could make that phở bò any better, however, might be a question for the gods, or at least the combined wisdom of the world’s top French and Vietnamese chefs, to sort out.

I had it first at East End Market, where it was billed as espuma de pho. Back then, the bò (beef) was short rib. Light and heavy all at once, the soup is a bit of a marvel, one that guests didn’t want to let go of. Which made Phan, who’d been refining it throughout his time there, hesitant to bring it to Baldwin Park.

“I kept it off the menu for six months,” he tells me. “I didn’t want to depend on some one-hit wonder. Guests were not happy, but I really wanted to push myself.”

Beverage Director Derrick Goodman, a fan of the dish, as well, balked at the chef’s strategy.

Spanish sole with turmeric and dill. Exquisite. (Amy Drew Thompson/Orlando Sentinel)
Spanish sole with turmeric and dill. Exquisite. (Amy Drew Thompson/Orlando Sentinel)

“He’d say, ‘You gotta give the people what they want,’ Phan laughs. But, I was so against it. I wanted to show what I could do. To bring it back, I had to challenge myself.”

And so, the short rib, an easy sell, was banished, replaced with an upgrade: gorgeous, tender hunks of beautifully braised beef tongue.

He credits his team with the passion to perfect it. I love this underrated protein in everything from deli sandwiches to street tacos, but it’s not a common one. Winning the trust of the guest, says Phan, plays a large role in being able to to sell it to those less intrigued by new things.

Chef/Partner Tung Phan makes the drop on the second course. (Amy Drew Thompson/Orlando Sentinel)
Chef/Partner Tung Phan makes the drop on the second course. (Amy Drew Thompson/Orlando Sentinel)

“By the time it goes out to the dining room,” he says, confident after rounds of tasting, refining, challenging himself and the team. “We know they’re going to love it. And it’s nice to challenge the guests a little bit, too.”

It took me some time to make it to Phan’s new nest, where a chill soundtrack with solid beats is a subtle nod to his first restaurant, Phan’s, even if the hip-hop bounced a little harder back then. While far more expansive than Camille’s space at East End Market, there remains an intimacy to the chef’s counter here, something I observed from the even-cozier corner booth.

Vietnamese banana blossom salad gets the Camille treatment as Course No. 1, featuring Hokkaido scallop. (Amy Drew Thompson/Orlando Sentinel)
Vietnamese banana blossom salad gets the Camille treatment as Course No. 1, featuring Hokkaido scallop. (Amy Drew Thompson/Orlando Sentinel)

The dining room menu — right now, limited to Wednesday nights — is a more affordable splurge ($120 per person versus $195 for the signature chef’s counter experience), but incredibly sumptuous. Five courses feature a condensed version of what the folks at the counter are having — in carefully upsized portions.

That phở was Plate No. 2, and so ample with its rich foam and tongue and treasurelike vermicelli buried beneath, that I gambled and left some over, saving room. Each dish feels wholly French — fine sauces, exquisite plating, a rainbow garden of microgreens and tweezered blossoms — but those in the know will find the Vietnamese inherent in each.

And if you’re not, no worries. You’ll learn.

The dish's name
The dish’s name “măng tây trắng” highlights the white asparagus, but the lamb was rich, tender and gamey in the loveliest way. And the crust? New words should be invented. (Amy Drew Thompson/Orlando Sentinel)

Plate 1 featured gỏi bắp chuối (banana blossom salad) with an Hokkaido scallop, its texture near to custard, steamed at precise temps for one minute, cooled, torched, sliced. It is precision and art. The fibrous plant is a challenge to cut and wash to prevent oxidization, new tools now, in the arsenals of the young chefs Phan is training. The herbs so often seen in Vietnamese dishes are crafted into a bright, tamarind-tinged pesto.

The soup was my dining companion’s top pick, but for me, it was Course 3. A flawless lamb chop with a crafted crust to match. The flavors and textures dazzled — dates for the essence of Morocco (Phan’s resume includes a stint at the Morocco Epcot pavilion) and paired with a sprinkling of Vietnamese inspiration. In this case, fermented sweet rice.

“I’m taking these things and preparing them in ways that are traditional, but also with elements that are not traditional at…



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2024-06-20 09:05:19

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