What a difference a few months can make. I first visited Mien Tay in late June 2008 (soon after it got a nice writeup in TimeOut) and then again just a few weeks ago, in November. My notes of the first experience amounted to “good food, overwhelmed service” (because of the exposure it got from several good reviews, not just the one in Time Out). My notes from the second experience were “mediocre food, very attentive and sweet service, and lots of customers ordering egg fried rice and getting drunk.”
Usually when a mom-and-pop place like Mien Tay disappoints me, I don’t bother writing about it, because (1) who cares if a small place is sub-par; and (2) I’m biased towards underdogs and therefore hate the idea of piling on to a small business’s struggles. But not only did Mien Tay get that positive writeup in TimeOut, but also the Metro gave it some love and The Evening Standard‘s Charles Campion gave it some attention. So now I don’t feel like they’re the underdog anymore.
So the Night and Day differences in my two visits brought to mind the nagging question of how many times – and when – should I visit a restaurant before I spout off on whether it’s any good? (And I certainly couldn’t object if you labeled this one the “take myself too seriously” post).
Most of us bloggers (and most publications, even) don’t have the New York Times critic’s budget (and time and willpower) to visit a place five times before we write a review. So the best I can do is tell you how many times – and when – I visited a place before forming my opinion, and I try to be detailed in my examples of why something is good or bad. And then after that, readers abide by a blog world’s version of caveat emptor (i.e., it’s great if you trust my opinion, but beware the limitations of food blogging).
London Eater, by the way, has been writing thoughtful posts on why we trust food bloggers even though some of us aren’t exactly inconspicuous at restaurants (so query the consumer advocacy of someone who’s drawing special treatment perhaps as much as a professional reviewer would), and most of us visit a restaurant only once before sharing our opinions.
Now, back to Mien Tay. Here’s an example of why, despite a very good food experience there in June, I’m now cautious about going back. Exhibit A: soft-shell crab in late June 2008 was crispy, grease-free, and exploding with juiciness. For a minute, I thought I was back in DC when the first soft-shell crabs from the Chesapeake are on the market. I crunched every last crab leg and it was £7 happily spent.
Then, during my recent meal, I ordered the same dish. And this time, despite the fact that my camera and the lighting were crappier, you’ll see Exhibit B bears almost no resemblance to Exhibit A. Exhibit B doesn’t even look like crab anymore. These were flat, perfectly-round crab patties. Like something you’d buy out of a frozen food box. Where were the crab’s legs? Where was the juicy inside?
To be fair, our recent meal at Mien Tay wasn’t *all* bad. It just wasn’t as good as it was when we were there in June. The prawn pancake was hot and crispy and full of big, well-cooked (i.e., not mealy and tough) prawns. Our pho was good enough (it’s not Song Que or Huong Viet broth, but at least there’s no mile-long queue like at the former and no crazy-harried-inattentive servers like at the latter).
In fact, the service that drove us crazy in June had much improved. Despite the fact that we were seated upstairs in Siberia, there were always servers when tap water needed refilling or bottles needed opening. These guys were super attentive and nice.
So overall – where am I on Mien Tay?
The service was trying so hard and the dishes other than soft-shell crab were still good enough that I will go back and give them another try. But if you’d asked me in June what I thought, I would’ve been singing Mien Tay’s praises. I held back on blogging that time because, frankly, I felt sure the service would get its act together (and it seems they have!) and then I could talk about Mien Tay’s perfection.
I surely hope my second trip was the anomaly, because I’m running out of Vietnamese faves in town – Huong Viet is just no longer worth the schlepp; Song Que‘s queues always put me off; Cay Tre has never impressed me (though given the many people who love it, I could be ordering tragically wrong there); and my neighborhood standby Viet Garden can be so uneven depending on the dish that its biggest strength is its location 120 seconds’ walk from my flat. So Mien Tay, I hope you kick ass the next time I visit.
Our meals both times never topped £15 a person, despite aggressive ordering of two appetizers and three mains. It is, of course, BYOB with no corkage.
Mien Tay, 122 Kingsland Rd, Shoreditch, E2 8DP. Tel: 020 7729 3074