Back in 1986, Katia Nguyen opened a restaurant in a quiet Brussels neighbourhood, little realising what a huge success it would be. now, some 32 years later L’Orchidée Blanche has long since been a byword for fine Asian cuisine, not just in this now-bustling area but further afield.
Indeed, word had spread so far about the quality of the excellent Vietnamese food available here that, in 2015, it was awarded the prestige title of “Best Asian Restaurant in Belgium” by that renowned food guide Gault and Millau. Considering the sheer number of Asian restaurants in Brussels alone that is some accolade but is well deserved.
It is all a long way from the days, back in the 70s, when Katia first arrived in this country for her studies. Like so many of her compatriots, she had fled the horrors and misery of the Vietnam war in search of a better life.
Sadly, due to the now well-known historic reasons which affected so many, she was unable to return to her homeland when that bitter conflict ended.
Instead, she set about starting a new life in her “new” home – Belgium – and, for lovers of great Vietnamese food that was, well, rather good news.
The restaurant is one of several Vietnamese places to eat in this very lively district, at the heart of the ULB university. But the thing that distinguishes Katia’s place from the others, as decent as some of them are, is that L’Orchidee Blanche sets a rather higher standard. Indeed, if there is a better place in Brussels – or Belgium come to that – for fine Vietnamese dining then it is yet to make itself known.
There’s a rich and varied choice of wonderful dishes, ranging from starters like potage Hu Tieu and Assiette (a combo of five Vietnamese favourites) to best-selling mains such as fried noodles with pork and grilled chicken with lemon leaves. The Fondu (for two), cooked in either a soya or lemon leaf stock, is another favourite.
The pleasantly contemporary and easy-on-the-eye, Zen-style décor is as delightful as the food (there’s also a garden terrace). If you take a table downstairs you may catch a glimpse of the bustling kitchen with the chefs hard at work while, upstairs, is a room that transports visitors to a colonial house on the edge of the Mekong River.
Everything here is prepared in-house and based on either traditional or more contemporary recipes but similar to the best you might find in Vietnam. From Hanoi, the capital, you can taste the famous “pho gà”, a delicious traditional and popular soup with rice pasta and chopped chicken in a succulent broth perfumed with basil. There’s also the famous sweet potato donuts with scampi.
Next stop is Hue, the ancient imperial city of the late dynasty of the 13th century Nguyen emperors whose specialities include steamy bites called “banh bot loc” and rice cakes with shrimp “banh bèo”. Onto Ho Chi Minh City, the old Saigon and capital of the South and the famous “bun thit nuong” (rice vermicelli with sliced pork) and tasty prawns with tamarind sauce.
To round off a wonderful meal what’s more delicious than pieces of fresh mango served with glutinous rice and a coconut milk sauce. There are various differently-priced menus and also a wide selection of French wines enriched with some bottles from Spain, Italy, South Africa and Chile – not forgetting a takeaway service for those who prefer to eat at home.
The very welcoming and friendly Katia has come a very long way since she first set foot in Belgium. For a restaurant still to be thriving 32 years after it opened is a real achievement these days but for that same place to have been under the same ownership all that time is quite remarkable… which very accurately describes the food and service here.
Good to know:
Address: Chaussée de Boondael 436 – 1050 – Brussels
Reservations: 02 647 56 21