Posts Tagged ‘Vietnamese in London’

interior of Banh Mi Bay

Not too long ago, I’d have to go to Paris to satisfy my craving for banh mi.

What a difference twelve months can make!  While I wouldn’t say London has a huge banh mi scene now, there are at least half a dozen places to find those porky-savory-sweet-spicy sandwiches I love.  Most recently, I tried out Banh Mi Bay in Holborn, which is just a ten-minute cycle ride from my house thanks to those snazzy Boris bikes.  Score.  (If anyone from TFL is reading this, by the way, we’re dying for docking stations around Islington Green.)

I’ve actually visited Banh Mi Bay twice over the last month.  Not because it was that amazing, but only because the first time I showed up, it was dinnertime, and when I tried to order banh mi, the restaurant told me they’d  “run out” of banh mi during the afternoon.  I was pretty crushed.  I mean, the restaurant’s named Banh Mi Bay, and they ran out of banh mi?

I regret not having asked why the restaurant couldn’t make more banh mi during the intervening hours between lunchtime and dinnertime.

cha gio (£4) and summer rolls (£3.50)

So, involuntarily, I’ve had more than just the banh mi at Banh Mi Bay.  Cha gio and summer rolls were good, but I still felt like I’d been cheated somehow.

shredded caramel pork com dia (£6.50)

char-grilled pork bun (£6)

Jon and I ordered basic rice vermicelli (bun) and rice (com dia) dishes.  Pluses:  plenty of chilis on the side to liven up the otherwise-bland nuoc cham; good non-clumpy texture to the rice vermicelli noodles.  Minuses:  much of the grilled pork had been burnt to a crisp.  I wouldn’t return to Banh Mi Bay for these.

chargrilled pork banh mi (£3.50)

Learning from the mistake I made during that first visit, I showed up for lunch the second time around.  To maximize the odds that Banh Mi Bay would be serving banh mi, of course.

And you know what?  It was good.  The bread, too often the downfall of banh mi, had a light, crackly crust, and a soft, pillowy interior.  Plenty of chili kick and a good amount of sweet-crunchy pickled veg.  Worth the second trip.

"meatballs" (£5)

Not satisfied with just banh mi, Jon couldn’t resist seeing what the “meatballs” listed on the menu were.  And these were pretty good – a DIY deal.  You assembled your own rolls using pre-softened rice paper wrap.

Vietnamese coffee (£2)

Ending our banh mi lunch with some sticky-sweet Vietnamese coffee (who knew condensed milk could be good?), we left happy and full and only £15 lighter in wallet for the two of us.   The cafe is pretty, the prices low, and the service attentive.  I’ll be back, though only for the banh mi.

Banh Mi Bay, 4-6 Theobald’s Road, WC1X8PN; 0207 831 4079; closest Tube stations:  practically a tie among Holborn, Farringdon and Russell Square.

For other posts about banh mi in London:

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Caphe House on Bermondsey Street

Caphe House on Bermondsey Street

Last Friday, Jon and I had tickets to see Romeo & Juliet at the Globe (and obviously, Jon was very excited, because what man doesn’t love R&J?). And because the show started at 7:30 pm, the challenge was finding a quick, tasty, nearby place to eat dinner. (Much as I love the South Bank, it’s a bit of a culinary wasteland around the Globe, and Friday nights around the always-packed Borough Market area are a major hassle that I prefer to avoid).

The stars aligned when my friend at work, Val, who lives on Bermondsey Street, told me about the new Vietnamese cafe that opened on her block: Caphe House. Sitting next to me at the office, Val is familiar with my love for banh mi and immediately noticed that Caphe House advertises banh mi in its window. So the plan that formed in my head was to drop by for a sandwich after work and eat it on my walk to the Globe. That Charmaine gave it her stamp of approval in TimeOut a few days after Val shared the news set my plan in stone.

a (half-eaten) pork banh mi from Caphe House

a (half-eaten) pork banh mi from Caphe House

The cafe is small and pretty. In keeping with the neighborhood, it’s simple, but much more upscale than Banzi in Surrey Quays. When I showed up just before closing time at 7 pm, the cafe tables were still filled with Aussies (who appreciate a good Vietnamese cafe, I suspect). I ordered two of the pork banh mi, which were £3.50 each, and the friendly guy making the generous-sized sandwiches explained that Caphe used “special” bread that was extra crispy. [Irony alert.]

Well, as Charmaine wrote in her blurb, the banh mi fillings were great: *tons* of pickled carrots and daikon; superb creamy pate with a strong offal flavor that held its own; good chili kick; and pork slices that still had bits of meaty aspic clinging to them.

But can you guess what was wrong? Indeed, it was the bread. Sure, it was crispy. But it was also *thick*. And there was butter slathered on it. Though the butter must be a nod to this being England, I much prefer a quick swipe of mayo.

Ah well. Good to know banh mi is popping up all over London, and always nice to find a cheap, pleasant place on the South Bank. But call me when the baguette is finally thin *and* crispy.

Oh, and as for the play: I want those three hours of my life back. How anyone could produce a Romeo & Juliet so devoid of chemistry between the title characters is beyond me. At least I had a decent dinner beforehand.

Caphe House, 114 Bermondsey Street, SE1 3TX; 020 7403 3574; closest tube station: London Bridge (plus a 15-minute walk)
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Banzi Vietnamese restaurant in Surrey Quays, London

Banzi Vietnamese restaurant in Surrey Quays, London

Having just spent a weekend in Paris eating a lot of banh mi, you’d think I would’ve satisfied my craving for this bit of East-West sandwich deliciousness. But no, the minute I got back to London, I continued to wonder who sells the stuff here.

Cue Charmaine, who left a comment on my blog, telling me there’s banh mi to be found in Surrey Quays, which a google search revealed is not far from Canada Water station. Finally, my working in Canary Wharf turns out to be convenient to something yummy!

So, after work last Friday, I dragged Jon east on the Jubilee Line to Canada Water, and then it was a quick bus ride down to the Surrey Quays shopping center (I’ve never in my life seen such an enormous Tesco, by the way). Five minutes’ walk later, we were at Banzi.

The place is tiny and nondescript. It’s not a dive, but it’s not much to look at. The dining room’s lone server was doing her best to handle the sudden flood of diners coming in at around 7:30 pm, so Jon and I grabbed our own menus from a pile I spotted in the corner.

I eagerly scanned the menu, and there it was: a whole section of the menu devoted to banh mi, and none cost more than £4.

grilled pork banh mi at Banzi restaurant, London

grilled pork banh mi at Banzi restaurant, London

We slogged through a few forgettable appetizers – a spicy chili fried prawn dish with an unpleasantly-soft coating and a banh xeo that was all sprouts and hardly anything else inside – and then, my wish was fulfilled: a generous serving of grilled pork banh mi. Thick slices of barbecued pork, lots of pickled veg, coriander, cucumber, chili spice, and creamy, slightly-sweet mayonnaise. The baguette was of the par-baked supermarket variety (crispy and hot when hot out of the oven but otherwise too sugary). In one bite, I could taste sweet, salty, spicy, creamy and smoky flavors. The beauty of banh mi.

Banzi’s version was a tad too heavy on the mayo and overall sugariness, but I’ll definitely be back the next time I need my banh mi fix. The place is a bit of a schlepp, but it’s closer than Paris, and it appears there are other worthwhile Vietnamese places in the area. Maybe one of those other places serves banh mi, too.

Banzi Vietnamese restaurant, 237 Lower Road, SE16 2LW; 0207 394 0906. Closest tube station: Canada Water
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Vietnamese pancake at Mien Tay

Vietnamese pancake (banh xeo) at Mien Tay (November 2008)

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.

soft shell crab at Mien Tay in July

Exhibit A: soft-shell crab at Mien Tay in late June 2008

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.

soft shell crab at Mien Tay in November

Exhibit B: soft-shell crab at Mien Tay in November 2008

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?

crispy pork at Mien Tay

crispy pork at Mien Tay (November 2008)

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
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steamed whole sea bass with ginger at Huong Viet

steamed whole sea bass with ginger at Huong Viet

Despite Huong Viet’s relative inaccessibility by tube (it’s a 15-minute bus ride from the closest station), Jon and I used to eat there once a month. The “hanoi” beef pho, the prawn banh xeo (Vietnamese pancake), and the whole steamed sea bass at low low prices made the 40-minute bus-and-walk journey from our flat worthwhile. 

Jon and I weren’t the only ones who loved Huong Viet – Hardens, TimeOut, and the Good Food Guide tripped over themselves singing HV’s praises. 

BUT, the thing with Huong Viet that Jon and I always worked hard to overlook was the service. It’s not that the servers are nasty, but they’re just totally harried. In a country where I think restaurants are often under-staffed, Huong Viet took server inattentiveness to new heights: there just were never enough servers for the *crowds* that fill the dining room. A meal at Huong Viet always seemed to turn into the night’s main activity because it was impossible to get in and out in under two hours. (Weird for a restaurant that you’d assume works on a turn-those-tables-fast profitability model).

A few months ago, Jon and I stopped going when, after waiting ages for some white rice, we were informed that the restaurant had run out of white rice for the evening. How does that happen, really? And why could nobody make more?

Well, as proof of how delish and cheap the food at Huong Viet is, last Friday, Jon and I couldn’t resist the memory of the resto’s fragrant, hot pho and their crispy banh xeo. We braved the monsoon, caught the No. 30 bus to Dalston, and walked the fifteen minutes down to Englefield Road, dreaming of good stuff.

prawn banh xeo (crispy Vietnamese pancake)

prawn banh xeo (crispy Vietnamese pancake)

I remembered the prawn banh xeo (£6.50) bursting with massive, juicy prawns. How sad that after our months-long hiatus, Jon and I returned to HV only to find our beloved crispy pancake filled with half-cooked yellow onions, a few crunchy bean sprouts and some shriveled-up, microscopic bits of overcooked prawns. The yellowing, limp slices of iceburg lettuce on the side (can you see it in the upper-right-hand corner of the prawn banh xeo photo above?) further depressed.

pork and prawn cha gio (spring rolls) at Huong Viet

pork and prawn cha gio (spring rolls) at Huong Viet

Thinking maybe we should go to an old, reliable standby, Jon and I ordered pork and prawn cha gio (£4). These were at least tasty, though horribly disfigured (i.e., burned and misshapen). Maybe I can’t even credit them with being tasty . . . a spicy-sweet-tangy nuoc cham has a way of hiding all manner of sins.

Thank god the hanoi pho with beef (£5.60 for a large) still came through for us.  I’d be sad if nothing at all were as I remembered at Huong Viet.  The steamed whole sea bass for £8.50 was still fragrant with ginger and scallions.  And the corkage charge is still a reasonable £1.50 per person, so HV is still the place to be for an inexpensive, boozy meal out with friends. 

Overall, though, it may be months before I make the journey over there again.  Well-priced sea bass and pho aren’t big enough pulls to overcome the travel time from my flat and the indifference of servers.   Not when I have Viet Garden two minutes from my flat and the joys of more-easily reached Kingsland Road to eat.

Huong Viet, An-Viet House, 12-13 Englefield Road, N1 4LS, 0207 249 0877; closest tube stations: none, really.  Huong Viet is about a 15-minute bus ride from either Highbury & Islington or Old Street stations.

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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.~~~

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