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Many Happy Returns

A fusion of two top chefs

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Perhaps the stars aligned correctly or the fairy godmother is actually a foodie at heart. For whatever reason, two of Charlotte's chefs have reappeared together in the most unlikely spot.Restaurateurs and chefs Be Phan and Axel Dikkers have formed a new venture in Ballantyne. "Axel and I have been friends for many years," Phan explains. "When I opened Cafe Saigon on (Highway) 51 years ago he wanted to be a part of it. Now we finally have the opportunity to work together," she adds. This past March, she opened Saigon Cafe.

Phan spent four years out of the restaurant fray. She and Hien Le, her husband, opened Huong Viet, a Vietnamese restaurant, on Central Avenue in 1990, later sold it, and then had the first Cafe Saigon in Quail Corners until it closed in 1996. She opened an upscale Cafe Saigon on Highway 51 in 1997, but subsequently sold that as well. For the past four years Phan has owned the Asian Market and Seafood on South Boulevard and four nail shops, all of which she has sold, and a convenience store in Rock Hill which she still owns.

Axel Dikkers was the chef and owner of Pastis in SouthEnd. I awarded Pastis CL's Best New Restaurant in 1998. Pastis closed in April 2002. Dikkers is, and has been, a chef with style, grace, and an imaginative twist. "I like to bring a little fantasy to my cooking," he once told me, "But it's all based on classical French cuisine." After graduating Geneva's Hotel School, he fulfilled a lifelong ambition by apprenticing with the late Chef Raymond Thuillier at the then Michelin three-star Oustau de Baumaniere in Les Baux, France. One of his fellow apprentices there was Wolfgang Puck. Later Dikkers moved to LA to become Executive Chef at the LA Tower Club where he met a businessman who was later transferred to head up an operation in Charlotte. The executive spurred Dikkers to move here as well. First he became Senior Executive Chef at Charlotte's Tower Club and then he opened Pastis.

Dikkers says, "I've known Be and her husband Hien for a long time and they asked me to join them. It's been very, very nice and I have the opportunity to create something different."

So with high hopes for space where shops have folded, on the backside of a strip shopping center in Ballantyne without any beckoning signage, two of Charlotte's more creative forces have joined hands to create a Vietnamese/French restaurant. Have Phan and Dikkers kissed the right frog?

Here at Saigon Cafe, the interior is cut with angles and bands of muted colors evoking the romantic reverie of a Giorgio de Chirico street scene. A line of plants along a wall at the entrance looks well-suited for the space. Other greenery does not. The menu, a throwback to typical Asian menus, has the items numbered, which is a distracting feature at best and one that diminishes the expectations of the diner.

Although the French/Vietnamese combination may strike one as odd, French restaurants have been part of the culinary landscape in Vietnam since their ill-fated colonial days after World War II. On a more personal note, Dikkers is originally from the Netherlands, a place that has some of the best Indonesian curry restaurants I've ever frequented. In fact, Dikker's father worked in Indonesia for ten years and fell in love with the food there. The family has been eating curries ever since.

Thus I arrive at Saigon Cafe for the food. Besides, where else in Charlotte can you find Burgundian snails and chicken stir-fry with lemon grass on the same menu?

The kitchen is divided with Dikkers in charge of the French offerings and Phan in charge of the Asian. What really astonished us were the starters. While neighboring tables savored the ubiquitous spring rolls, we fought over our appetizers: one a decadent, gargantuan crab cake splashed in lobster sauce, the other grilled baby eggplants stuffed with melting creamy goat cheese, sprinkled with toasted pine nuts with a side of garden greens. Both were only $6.75. Then we tried Dikker's wondrous soup: tender mussels in a saffron bath of white wine and cream.

It was hard to kick the French habit and turn to see what Phan is up to. Happily she produced an impressive coconut-based chicken curry entree with carrots, potatoes and lemon grass. Less exciting was a crepe layered with large slices of tender pork, shrimp, bean sprouts, mung beans, and mint keenly balanced by a spry dipping sauce. Other entrees on the menu include baby leg of lamb, pan seared duck breast with raspberry sauce, pad Thai, fried rice, and jumbo scallops with braised leeks.

The wine list is small, but has a few standouts. Menu prices are amazing. Most appetizers and salads are $6 or $7 and entrees range from $10.95 to $17.95 for the Peppered New York Strip steak. The only downside at Saigon Cafe is the table service and one malfunctioning oven. Phan noted that she is aware of both problems and is working to resolve them.

Missing Dikker's talents for more than a year, we indulged in more of his treats. Desserts, exclusively made by Dikkers, have only a passing relation to Vietnamese cuisine: ginger flan in caramel sauce, a French apple pie, tuile and vanilla ice cream with tropical fruit, and opera chocolate cake. You can't go wrong.

At Saigon Cafe, Chef Dikkers soars with the luxury to concentrate exclusively on his creations. Will this team live happily ever after? Who is to say? But for now, enjoy what you've got.

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