After my recent visit to Vietnam, where I consumed copious amounts of Pho and other delicious local dishes, I was thrilled to be invited by the gorgeous Rachelle of Qype to visit Pho Café in London’s Great Titchfield Street.
I was also intrigued by this invitation as, in London, I admit never venturing outside Kingsland Road for my regular fix of Vietnam’s national dish.
Pho Café is one of those restaurants I was ready to dislike. Owned by an English couple and with three branches in London (Clerkenwell, Oxford Circus and Westfield), the cafes have a trendy decor and cater for a mostly Western clientele – I feared it would lack authenticity.
Having dreamt about opening my own restaurant for the last 20 years, I feel inspired whenever I meet people like Stephen and Juliette Wall. They were clearly passionate about Vietnamese cooking and the quality of the food served at their restaurants. They gave a touching account of their trials and tribulations starting Pho 5 years ago (and getting married in the process).
We were then shown how to prepare “goi cuon tom” (fresh rice paper rolls filled with vermicelli noodles, prawns, salad and herbs) by one of their chefs (all their kitchen staff are Vietnamese).
These were fresh and delicious and similar to the ones I’d just eaten in Vietnam. At £3.75, I felt that they were also well priced.
This was followed by two other delicious starters/sides – “Cha Gio” – fried pork spring rolls @ £3.95 and “Nem nuong” – grilled pork and lemongrass meatballs @ £4.50.
These are the simplest of starters, but good quality versions are very hard to find, hence I never order them in Vietnamese restaurants in London. Pho’s versions were delicious, fresh and obviously made on the premises.
We were also served “Goi du du” – a salad of shredded green papaya with prawns and herbs topped with peanuts @ £5.95. Again the most popular of Vietnamese salads, this was a perfect example of Goi Du Du - very aromatic and ultra fresh.
The “Goi ga” – chicken salad with peppers, mixed herbs with chilli and ginger dressing @ £5.45 was also excellent. I loved the combination of shredded chicken, peppers and finely sliced shallots, with the chilli and ginger dressing giving it a zingy lift.
Juliette took us to visit the kitchen where we saw their large vat of pho stock simmering away. It looked fantastic, and the kitchen was filled with the most delicious aromas of beef, star anise, cinnamon and other spices.
I had a lot of trouble deciding which of their 11 different types of Pho I would have, but opted for “Pho bo dac biet” – rice noodle soup with steak, brisket and meatballs served with fresh herbs @ £7.95. This was much anticipated, and I have to admit it was extremely good. The stock was concentrated but still with a sophisticated flavour – the meats were also delicious, as were the noodles which had been cooked perfectly.
For dessert, I had a “Chuoi Chien” – banana fritters with honey and ginger ice cream @ £4. I loved the flavours of this dessert – the deep fried bananas were covered with a deliciously crispy batter and went very well with the honey and ginger ice cream.
In Vietnam, beer is traditionally drunk with food at restaurants and on special occasions. Pho serves all major Vietnamese beers like Halida, Hue and Saigon for £3.25 as well as Beer Laos at £3.45.
I was also impressed by how well priced their wine list is. Bottles start at £13.95 for a delicious French Viognier (which I tasted) and go up to £16.25 for an Australian Riesling or £17.95 for a Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc. I find that for Oriental food in general, Gewürztraminer, Viognier and Riesling are nearly always the best matches.
Stephen and Juliette have made Vietnamese food accessible to Londoners – there are no plastic lobsters hanging on the walls, the menus are well explained, and the serving staff are friendly and articulate. In May, they will be opening a branch in Brighton, and another in Soho is also scheduled to open later in 2010.
Cost: this was a complementary meal, but I have quoted the prices of all the dishes I tried. I estimate that a meal for one would cost in the region of £15 including a starter, pho and dessert but excluding drinks.
Likes: probably the most delicious bowl of pho outside the ‘pho mile’ (Kingsland Road or thereabouts), excellent value for money and fantastic banana fritter with honey and ginger ice cream. The wine list is also well priced and includes some attractive choices.
Dislikes: despite the simple but well thought out menu (40 items only), I missed some old favourites like “chargrilled beef and lemongrass wrapped in betel leaves” and “fried soft shell crab”.
Verdict: Simple but well executed menu just off Oxford Street at very affordable prices. An excellent choice for Vietnamese food outside Kingsland Road. Recommended.