I don’t know much about Vietnamese food.
I’ve never been to Vietnam. I haven’t got any Vietnamese friends here in the UK to introduce me to Vietnamese home cooking. And I have only visited the “pho mile” (as fellow blogger bellaphon calls it) a couple of times and didn’t really know what dishes to order that would be most representative of the cuisine.
So I was happy to learn more by way of an invitation to attend a blogger event at Pho Cafe in Great Titchfield Street, the second location of this mini-chain of three (with a fourth opening in Brighton very shortly). I’d been to the same branch once before about a year ago and enjoyed it.
This time, our blogger group were seated at a long table in the basement where we learned about the history of the restaurant, had a go at making goi cuon tom (summer rolls), took a tour of the kitchen and, of course, ate and drank our way through the menu!
I suspect Pho has often been derided for lack of authenticity simply on the grounds that it was founded by a British couple, Stephen and Juliette Wall. They took an extended trip around South East Asia, were particularly taken with Vietnamese pho and, on getting home, took the plunge to leave their office jobs and set up a new business, launching their first restaurant in Clerkenwell back in 2005. The great rat race escape! However, from the start they employed a Vietnamese head chef and kitchen team, ensuring that the food they deliver is authentic and delicious.
Incidentally, the correct pronunciation for pho the dish, is fuh. But the restaurant name is pronounced to rhyme with low.
Although Vietnamese beers were in generous supply, I stuck with soft and started with a couple of light, refreshing, freshly squeezed juices (coconut, pineapple and apple then apple, mint and lime) before moving on to an organic green tea and then finishing with a coffee, served Vietnamese style in a “dripper” that sits over the cup and drips the coffee onto the sweet condensed milk below. Yum!
I enjoyed assembling the goi cuon tom (summer rolls) before tucking in to the prawns, crunchy salad and herbs wrapped in the translucent, thin wrapper. As I’d remembered, the fresh coriander and mint made this a very light and summery starter.
Back at the table we were served large sharing platters of cha gio (fried pork spring rolls), nem nuong (grilled pork and lemongrass meatballs) as well as more summer rolls. I really enjoyed all three, though the meatballs were probably my favourite.
Towering dishes of Vietnamese salads were a revelation to me. The goi du du (prawn and papaya salad) was my favourite; an explosion of flavours and textures and again, delivering a very, very fresh sensation. The other two salads were nice, but didn’t wow me as much. I wouldn’t normally order salad when eating out but I’d absolutely order the prawn and papaya one again!
We took it in turns to visit the tiny open kitchen, upstairs and I think every one of us was bowled over by the immense vat of beef stock, made from scratch at each site, each day. The stock, which forms the base of pho noodle soup, gave out an intense, heady aroma of beef and spices; in it’s depths floated huge chunks of brisket, vegetables and whole spices.
Stuffed to the gills, we were offered full or child portions of the main dishes (with some brave eaters opting to try both pho noodle soup and bun noodles and even a curry dish ordered). I opted for a small pho bo dac biet which consists of steak, brisket, meatballs and rice noodles in the base beef stock. Served alongside are herbs, beansprouts and chilli to be added to taste.
The stock was subtle but delicious, the combination of different meats worked well. But even my small bowl was too much to finish; I had serious appetite envy of those who managed both their pho and their bun noodle dishes!
That said, after a little more time spent chatting, I couldn’t resist trying the chuoi chien (banana fritters) with honey and ginger ice-cream. Unlike my last visit, the fritters were wonderful, made from properly ripe bananas and full of soft, sweet banana flesh coated by a wonderfully crunchy batter. Luckily, although I couldn’t finish mine, there were friends on hand to ensure nothing went to waste!
I really appreciated the chance to try a larger range of the dishes available, and also to learn more about both the cuisine itself and the history of the business. Please note, I enjoyed this meal on a complimentary basis.