La Verticale in Hanoi is more than a classy restaurant in the capable hands of Didier Corlou, a five-star Diamond Award chef and member of the French Culinary Academy. It is also the place to find exotic spices from Vietnam and other countries.
Corlou - who has served his fare to several visiting heads of state including Jacques Chirac, Bill Clinton and George Bush - has been working as a chef in Vietnam for 20 years, starting with the French and Vietnamese restaurants at the Sofitel Metropole.
During this time he has traveled all over the country in search of exotic ingredients, spices and traditional cooking methods to create his unique menu.
The best Vietnamese food is made in Vietnam as the land provides special spices and herbs that no traditional dish can go without. For example, anyone wanting to learn how to cook pho must first learn how to use ginger and star flower.
These spices and herbs from all over can be found in the shop adjacent to La Verticale. It's located on the ground floor of a French villa and is warm and inviting with its hundreds of large and small glass jars of exotic spices.
Corlou says he investigated how nuoc mam (fish sauce) differed from place to place in Vietnam, particularly Cat Hai (Hai Phong), Phu Quoc (Kien Giang Province), Nha Trang (Khanh Hoa Province) and other established sauce-producing areas on the coast.
On his journeys around Sa Pa in the northwestern mountains, he came across the spices that the local tribes use to keep their meat and other food for months.
Much of what he discovered for himself as he traveled around can be found in his shop at 19 Ngo Van So Street.
"At this shop I can find different kinds of pepper ranging from wild pepper to Phu Quoc Island pepper. Pollen from the forest and 15-year-old fish sauce are my favorites for spicing up my cooking," says Nguyen Van, one of the customers in the shop.
"I like the wild honey and five-spice Tonkin honey for their special natural flavors. Fresh star anise and fresh coriander seeds in salt water (also called Caviar from the Gardens) add a special flavor to simple dishes," says Le Huong, another customer.
"Vietnamese minorities have been cooking and treating diseases with spices for a very long time, such as with talauma or pepper from the mountain tops. The most commonly used spices are black cardamom and star anise, which only grow naturally on the cloudy plateaux of the north," says Corlou.
His shop is a spice encyclopedia where the spices are sorted into two groups. The first comprises rare spices from the mountains and other remote regions inhabited by ethnic minorities. The second features spices in daily use in Vietnam like star anise, turmeric, ginger and cinnamon.
The shop also stocks cookbooks by Corlou and traditional Vietnamese cooking equipment including the dua ca (long bamboo sticks), stone pestle and mortar, and special dishes and bowls designed by the famous chef.