Yesterday, our team went out to lunch because a company alum is rejoining the team as a temporary contractor to help cover for a guy who’s leaving the company. We decided to try out the restaurant at the Hilton that just opened in Canary Wharf in July 2006.
The hotel restaurant, Cinnamon, is all slate and dark woods — extremely sleek and pretty. You wouldn’t expect this kind of trendiness from a Hilton, though I guess with the Olympics coming in 2012, everyone in Canary Wharf is hoping to cash in. (Canary Wharf is east of central London, and the new Olympic complex is going up a little further east of Canary Wharf, which means if you’re at the Olympics, Canary Wharf is the closest thing that isn’t the middle of nowhere).
Service at the restaurant was awful, and the food even worse. The waiter had to repeat our orders at least three times before he got it right. And my baked goat cheese starter tasted like the cheese maker hadn’t quite gotten around to finishing making the cheese. It just tasted like what I imagine curds taste like – grainy and sour – drizzled with vinegar. Bleagh.
My main course of veal escalopes and pappardelle was drowning in a heavy cream sauce. If I had to look on the bright side, I’d say my pasta dish included large, fresh mushrooms that I could occasionally rescue from the cream sauce by moving it to higher ground at the edge of the pasta bowl. This is what you get for £21 a main course. Yikes. At least the bathrooms were snazzy. I hadn’t realized that Villeroy & Boch was now in the business of manufacturing sinks, but here was proof that this was, in fact, the case. Oh, and I learned that “Old Spots” are very special pigs. (The term was on the menu, and of course our waiter had no idea what Old Spots were and he couldn’t find out for us, either.) Pigs with a pedigree.
Dinner, needless to say, was far superior to lunch. Cathy and I met Jane and Bon at Huong Viet Restaurant, 12-14 Englefield Road, London, N1 4LS. Huong Viet is a real pain in the ass to reach, and it’s not in the nicest neighborhood, but once you walk through the grungy doorway, it’s an oasis of warmth, buzz and excellent Vietnamese food.
The fresh, cheap food is even better than what you get at the Four Sisters (Huong Que) in Seven Corners, Virginia. (To be fair, assuming you’re not flying to London anytime soon to eat at Huong Viet, the Four Sisters isn’t a bad second-choice. You just have to ignore the “Sniper Home Depot” across the highway).
At Huong Viet, where I eat at least once a month, I love the Vietnamese pancake with prawn. It’s this crispy, thin crepe that is filled with large, juicy prawns, crunchy, fresh bean sprouts, scallions and fish sauce for a mix of sweet and savoury flavor. You could eat this pancake forever, and it’s £5.50 for a huge portion. The dish gets brought out on a cheap-o plastic tray because it’s inevitable you’re going to make a mess eating it. The crepe has a lot of flavor and crunch because it’s pan fried, I think, but the crispiness isn’t very good at catching all the delicious filling inside. Hence the plastic tray to catch your mess.
The cha gio (spring rolls) are also hot, fresh and flavourful, but if it’s fried goodies you want, the prawn pancake is the way to go.The pho is my second-favorite dish at Huong Viet. The broth is refreshing but meaty-rich-tasting with just the right kick of chili. Noodles are always just past al dente (i.e, perfect for pho) and the beef is sliced thin and rare, which allows the hot broth to finish the cooking. Top with crunchy beansprouts and coriander and you have a core-warming meal-in-a-bowl.
Of course the four of us pigged out at Huong Viet, managing to order and eat two prawn pancakes, spring rolls, two large bowls of Hanoi pho, a whole steamed sea bass, and half a “shredded duck” dish (which is served peking duck style, with pancakes, scallions and hoisin sauce).
All this food and five lemonades for £15 a person. So you begin to see why I go there at least once a month.If you end up at Huong Viet (and you should), be aware that the service is sloooow. Nobody is rude or anything. It’s just that the place seems to have only two servers, and while they are doing their best, the room is large and two people just never cut it. Saying the servers look hunted is an understatement. But be patient, because the food’s worth the wait.~~~