A new, slightly nondescript neon sign has appeared in Dubai International Financial Centre, sharing space with the likes of Zuma and Salt Bae Burger. The sign reads: Indochine. Enter through the doors below and you'll find an intimate space with plush booths, Martinique wallpaper, potted plants and lively music. It's all very much in keeping with the world-famous restaurant's flagship location in New York, which opened in 1984 and now has a cult following among the city's elite and Hollywood stars.
The French-Vietnamese restaurant on Lafayette Street in Lower Manhattan quickly gained traction as a hot spot for celebrities and counted Madonna, Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger and Diane von Furstenberg among its foremost patrons. Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour described it as "a fashionable restaurant that has never been subjected to the vagaries of fashion". In 1996, Calvin Klein booked it for the birthday party of his wife at the time. There are books written about it (Indochine: Stories, Shaken and Stirred, by Salman Rushdie, Moby, Julianne Moore and Bob Colacello, was published in 2009), and products dedicated to it (Mac Cosmetics released an Indochine lipstick for the restaurant's 30th anniversary in 2014). Old-timers aside, new-age superstars such as models Bella Hadid, Joan Smalls and rapper A$AP Ferg have been spotted in the space. That the restaurant launched its first international outpost in Dubai is a bit of a culinary coup.
Credit for bringing the brand to the UAE must be given to Khalil Dahmash and Varun Khemaney, the men behind hospitality group VKD. "When we first met Jean-Marc Houmard, one of the owners of the restaurant and told him we wanted to bring it to the UAE, he laughed," Khemaney says. "He asked if we had any idea how many people had approached them for the same thing over the years."
Houmard's possessiveness is understandable. He was a law student when he started working at Indochine as a waiter to pay his rent. He enjoyed his stint there so much he opted to stay in the food business and was promoted to the role of manager. In 1992, when Indochine developed financial problems despite its popularity, Houmard, along with Huy Chi Le, a busboy, and Michael Callahan, another manager, pooled their resources to save the restaurant.
Years later, what prompted Houmard to trust the Dubai lads to bring his beloved brand to the Middle East? It was VKD's work with Miss Lily's – another New York establishment the group brought to Dubai – that sealed the deal. Serge Becker, the restaurateur behind Miss Lily's New York, put in a good word for them. Being a smaller and relatively new company – VKD launched in 2016 and Miss Lily's is its only other project to date – the understanding was that the group would be able to provide a more hands-on approach.
And so they did. Khamaney and Dahmash recruited chef Steven Nguyen, who grew up in Canada but is of Vietnamese descent, and travelled to Vietnam to put together the right menu. "We already knew the Dubai palate, so we went there to try more authentic dishes," Dahmash says. "We compiled a list of dishes and went through the menu together, deciding what would work and what wouldn't. It was a collaborative process that took a few months."
For Nguyen, part of the process involved staying in New York – where he lived in an apartment right above Indochine – and learning how to create the restaurant's signature dishes. "Working in a Vietnamese restaurant of this calibre really attracted me," Nguyen says. "It's classy. Normally when people hear about Vietnamese food, they equate it with pho shops."
The Dubai branch will certainly be serving more than simply the famed noodle broth. On the menu are some classic Indochine dishes from the New York restaurant, such as Amok Cambodgien (steamed sea bream in banana leaf) and Vietnamese ravioli (rice noodles with chicken, shrimp and shiitake mushrooms). Nguyen also wanted to add his own touch to the list. Recommended dishes exclusive to Dubai are lamb char siu (slow-cooked lamb in honey glaze), black cod and wok-tossed rice noodles.
"In New York, the food being served at Indochine has hardly changed in 35 years," Dahmash says. "However, from our first project, we've learnt that we shouldn't bring a concept to another country exactly as it is. People in different regions want different things. The menu at Indochine may be nostalgic for those in New York who have been going there for decades but, coming to Dubai, we wanted to make Vietnamese food a little bit more progressive, using high-quality ingredients."
Houmard flew to Dubai to sample the dishes before the restaurant's launch and was in the city for about three weeks, offering feedback on the food and helping with the interior. "We were setting up framed photos of celebrities who have graced the New York branch since 1985 on a wall here, and Houmard had stories about each and every one of them," Khemaney says. "At the end, he told us it was time to create our own history."
The restaurant only opened on December 10, but it's already been the location for a private event held by Gucci, as well as being visited by celebrities such as RnB duo Majid Jordan, American singer and model Justine Skye and DJ Clark Kent. The Dubai outpost, then, is well on its way to building its own wall of fame.