July 30, 2011

Chef Danny's Aquaknox - A Taste of Vietnam

One casual evening I was invited to Aquaknox Vietnamese Kitchen in Arnaiz Avenue, Makati. Vietnamese food was something I wasn’t a fan of. I had a notion that it was something close to Chinese food - and trust me I’ve had enough of that. Surprisingly, after my chat with the chef, I immediately realized how wrong I was.

Chef Danny Vu is of Vietnamese descent but migrated to the States during the Vietnam War. His family moved to San Francisco and opened a restaurant there. He shared to me that he loved cooking ever since he can remember. At a young age, he started on his craft through a lot of home cooking with his mom and aunt.

An interesting fact about Chef Danny is his degree in Chemistry. He tried to do lab work after graduation but his passion for cooking prevailed. Eventually he worked at different restaurants, honing his skills. He fondly shared that he was not formally educated in cooking – learning all styles and tricks in different cuisines through personal experiences.

Opening Aquaknox was unplanned. While on a business trip in Manila, Chef Danny tried a lot of restaurants but felt that he wanted to bring Vietnamese food the way he knew how. He has been running restaurants since 1988 so he somehow took it as a challenge to open a Vietnamese restaurant in Manila.

More than just the traditional “Pho” that people associate Vietnamese cuisine with, he wanted to introduce a wider range of Vietnamese food. He said that, “Aquaknox is more specialized in a way since the recipes came from my family’s recipes of 2 generations already, and how I learned to adapt and apply it to the Filipino market.” One of his biggest challenges was to give Filipinos a better taste and idea on Vietnamese food. At that time, only people who had been to Vietnam were the ones who tried or appreciated the cuisine.

Not knowing anything about Vietnamese cuisine, I was eager to know what was the distinct taste that I can expect. Chef Danny shared that the base of a lot of Vietnamese food is fish sauce. He explained that there is a lot of influence since the country was under the colony of China, Japan, and for the longest time, France. Because of the French influence, there’s a unique blend of fish sauce with different herbs.

The Fresh Spring Rolls are the easiest to make. Though not everybody can make the sauce as flavorful to blend with the almost bland taste of the rice roll and vermicelli. Everything is not pre-rolled and is prepared only when ordered.

The next dish was the Steamed Mussels with Garlic Shallots, Lemon Grass and Thai Basil. The seafood stock is cooked everyday, simmering the stock with white wine (of French influence). I loved how this was not as salty as the Filipino way of steaming mussels with just salt.

I thought that the Shrimp and Pomelo Salad is Thai food but it’s actually a Vietnamese dish. The dressing is a blend of fish sauce and lemon. The tangy lemon taste enhances the sweet taste of the pomelo.

The soup of the Beef Pho and Rice Noodle is boiled for 6 hours with bone marrow and tendons. One of the cooks arrives at the restaurant at 6 in the morning to prepare the broth, ready when they open the resto. You need to put drops of limejuice, leaves of thyme, onion slices and bean sprout to the soup to add flavor.

Bringing in the northern Vietnamese influence, the next was the Cold Rice Vermicelli with Pork and Fried Rolls in a Bed of Lettuce. The fried rolls are stuffed with ground pork and crabmeat. To eat this, you need to first put the fish sauce and toss it so the sauce will seep through the dish.

The Tenderloin Beef is a mix of eastern and western style of preparation. The beef is marinated overnight with soy sauce and garlic, infused with red wine. It takes a long process to make the meat soft and tender but stir frying the meat needs to be right and quick to immediately serve to waiting clients. They use only US tenderloin beef to ensure the quality of the meat.

The specialty of the house is the Naked Crab. He said that this is eaten with the Garlic Pasta to enhance the garlicky flavor. 


The term naked describes how the crab is presented. You just need to take the head out and the meat is exposed for the picking. It is prepared with a mixture of herbs and butter. The crabmeat is not ground and the meat is still full, in big portions. A lot of people try to imitate, but no one can pull it off like Danny. This is the San Francisco meets Vietnam because of the strong garlic taste.

The resto incorporates the proper décor with the food. Aquaknox wanted to have a perfect match with the interior and food. The Vietnamese murals further showcases Vietnamese culture with women in the traditional "ao dai" costume and the straw hats. It has a very oriental feel with strong shades of red. The venue can hold a hundred people for parties and other events.

Aquaknox wants to be known for the uniqueness of their recipes. Clients can expect the quality of food with or without Chef Danny manning the kitchen. All of the cooks have an intensive minimum of one month training per station. “I want to keep the consistency of the cooking and the quality more so people can expect great food and appreciate the quality”, said Chef Danny.

I had to ask the secret to his cooking and he openly shared it, “Our food is based from the freshest ingredients, no short cuts in the cooking and no msg! The cardinal rule in cooking is if you use the freshest ingredients possible, 80% is already done; the rest is the chef’s creativity.” Applying his instincts and background as a chemist, Chef Danny mixes different herbs like thyme, oregano, etc. He loves using a lot of herbs but stresses that there is a need to understand the flavor of these herbs.

I learned how to be adventurous. My pre-conceived notion was shattered after all the dishes that Chef Danny prepared. The price is quite competitive, basing it to the caliber of the food. What I appreciated most was how Chef Danny puts a lot of thought and dedication in his cooking. He stressed that, “Any chef who does not go around and learn their craft does not get to learn much. You basically have to apply what you learn and be hard working.”

Aquaknox is located at 800 Arnaiz Ave. (formerly Pasay Road), Makati City.
You may visit their website at: http://www.aquaknox.com.ph/
They recently opened Xoi Vietnamese Kitchen at 5th floor, Building A, SM Megamall to reach clients in the Ortigas area.

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