My first experience of Vietnamese cuisine was a couple of years ago in Melbourne. We were taken to dinner by a couple of DJs that my boyfriend knew who were incredibly excited about taking us to their favourite restaurant in the city. Everything was looking good when we arrived – it was bustling with the locals and we had to fight to snag a table. The building was creaky and not perfect, everything you’d expect from a neighbourhood restaurant. We let the enthusiastic gents order and listened to them talk about how amazing the dishes were before they finally arrived, after what seemed like a lifetime. My first reaction was to almost burst into laughter, followed by tears. Just by looking at my plate I could see that my local Chinese takeaway could have done better. In front of us lay MSG ridden gloop, disgusting sticky sauces and very unhealthy looking vegetables. I couldn’t have been more disappointed and for a while it put me off trying Vietnamese in London.
When I finally braved it, I took a trip to Pho on Great Titchfield Street with a couple of friends. I tried Pho for the first time and couldn’t believe how different it was from the dishes I’d had in Melbourne. It was fresh and healthy, but I still didn’t love it.
Fast forward two years and I’m back at Pho, this time on Wardour Street. I walked in on a Thursday evening to a very busy restaurant, filled with young professionals enjoying a hearty dinner on a cold February evening. All day I had been telling myself that I would try the pho again, but on closer inspection of the menu, I decided I’d try the Bun Cha Gio Ga (£7.45). But first we delved into three starters – Goi Cuon Tom (summer rolls with chicken breast – £4.25), Banh Xeo Tom Ga (Vietnamese crepe with prawns, chicken and bean sprouts – £6.95) and Goi Du Du (papaya salad with chicken – £7.75).
None of the starters disappointed – the summer rolls were fresh, the external rice paper chewy, sticky and the inside crisp and juicy. The Goi Du Du provided a myriad of flavours, including juicy papaya, tender chicken pieces and crisp pepper slices. The Banh Xeo Tom pancake was the least impressive, but it didn’t stop me reaching over for more lettuce leaves to wrap the chicken and pancake batter in.
The Bun Cha Gio Ga arrived and consisted of a bowl of soft vermicelli rice at room temperature, sprouts, chicken, fresh herbs and a little bowl of nuoc cham, which I was told by the waitress to pour on top and mix together. Despite ordering the spicy version, it lacked spice and I had to put a good squeeze of sriracha hot chilli sauce into a bowl for dipping. Lack of spice in supposedly spicy dishes at restaurants has been a common recurrence recently – I have been ordering spicy and it has always been too mild. Maybe I’m going by my favourite local curry house standards in Wembley where a ‘medium’ spicy can blow your head off. But that’s not to say I didn’t like my main, because I did – particularly the slippery cold noodles that sat towards the bottom of the bowl.
After three starters and a main (between two), we were both pretty full. But of course the desserts were on the menu for a reason so we ordered a pandan pancake (£5.95) to share. I desperately didn’t want to be disappointed but I couldn’t help being just a little bit when the dessert arrived. The pancakes were green due to the green pandan leaf paste that is stirred into the batter and after the initial surprise, the novelty soon wore off and I was left with a mouthful of desiccated coconut and crunchy brown sugar. Perhaps I should have tried the banana fritters.
We also grabbed a couple of Vietnamese Sôn Tinh rice wines and fruit liquors, which are new to the menu, imported straight from Hanoi. I love the story behind them. Juliette & Stephen Wall, founders of Pho, take regular trips to Vietnam. They got so merry on rice wine during a recent trip to a popular bar in Hanoi called Highway 4 that they decided to ship it back over and serve it to us lucky diners. There are four fruity flavours to choose from and two traditional blends – dark and light. We ordered a plum (£4) and a traditional (£4.50). I managed a sip of each and decided not to risk the headache for work the next day. The plum was actually rather nice with hints of caramel and a deep spiced plum flavour.
As we left the restaurant, the heavens opened and white fluffy snow flurried down past our faces and we enjoyed the walk back to the tube, full, content and wondering if we would need to get the sledges out of the shed the following day.
Food For Think was a guest at Pho.
I don’t know why I’m telling you this (because I want to win myself) but Pho is currently running a competition to win two flights to Vietnam. Click here to enter. Good luck (kind of).
163-165 Wardour Street