Thursday, 27 January 2011

Anh Đào

The meaning of cherry blossom is both significant and symbolic- the Chinese view it as a beauty of feminine dominance as well as a standing for love whereas the Japanese traditionally see it as a transience of life (seeing that the flower blooms for such a short time; enjoy the most of it and banish all emotions when it dies). Anh Đào is Vietnamese for cherry blossom and it’s also the latest addition to The Phở Mile. I would like to think that this new restaurant has based its intentions on the Chinese version as opposed the albatross approach of the Japanese.

Anh Đào took over the large premises that used to be a seedy snooker hall in which Tom Waits wouldn’t feel out of place singing his songs about dwarfs and of morbid pathos. In order to set itself apart from the other Vietnamese eateries on Kingsland Road, the owner decided for a more upmarket approach, but without the PR-led (or dare I say manufactured) overtures. It’s additionally safe to state that the majority of Vietnamese restaurants in Blighty thrive on a no-nonsense but ultimately Orwellian ambience. However the overall surroundings at Anh Đào evoke a plushier and grander atmosphere, and bamboo (so beloved by the Vietnamese) is righteously retained as the décor’s main element. Barely less than two months old, this new place is run and owned by a most charming lady (and if you do meet her, you wouldn’t believe she’s also a mum of five kids including a 25-year-old lawyer…Oriental genes!). Her well-founded attributes are also passed on to her waiting staff, so no cockiness or extreme lost-in-translation moments here except a first-class service, which in itself, a trend setting bonus for a place like The Pho Mile.

It took me three visits to pen this review. The reason being is to do with the bowls of pho.

Prawn crackers (gratis at point of writing).

A good thing to appease newcomers and the pre-intoxicated lot. (FYI, these like most Chinese crackers taste nowt of prawns, the best ones hail from Malaysia or Indonesia).

Gỏi cuốn- summer rolls.

Textbook like and thus faultless. The big fat juicy prawns were flawless but to be perfectly honest I’m getting tired of this dish as a whole, I would’ve much preferred the more sinful chả giò (deep-fried version aka Vietnamese spring rolls).

Salt and pepper tofu

Predictably yawnish.

Spotted on the menu- langoustines!

Tôm càng nướng sốt Anh Đào- Char grilled langoustines with Anh Đào sauce.

Now hang on a second, these specimens look too bulbous and blatantly prawn-like to be langoustines. The lady proprietor was duly but politely accosted on the matter. “These aren’t true scampi!” I exclaimed. “But they are…they’re Vietnamese langoustines!” said Madame Anh Đào. Now being the kind of difficult and tenacious sod that I am, I countered immediately by requesting, “I need to see the heads and the claws for myself please”. “You can’t Sir, as these things were imported into the EU without the arms and heads”, she asserted. I sort of took her words for it and in spite of the niggling uncertainty surrounding the crustaceans on the plate; I dug-in. The sauce was divine- buttery and herby but the expertly grilled ‘prawns’ tasted more of insipid crayfish*.

Bún chay- vegetarian noodle soup.

If truth be told then I’m not the right person to comment on my dining companion’s choice of mains. Being a profound and insanely proud omnivore I found the above flavourless and pointless.

Phở bò tái- pho with flank and raw beef fillet.

My heart sank twice with this dish. First no usual pho garnishes of coriander, basil, bean sprouts and a wedge of lemon (only in Engerland that lime’s consistently excluded), and secondly the broth tasted totally shallow. The first misdemeanour was however served upon my insistence (Madame Anh Đào felt the garnishes were unnecessary as they lowered the temperature of the soup considerably, but I begged to differ!).

Thank goodness for the chilli sauce!

Squirt and more squirts…a little redemption to an otherwise disappointing dish. A justifiable fail!

A fruit salad on the house.

I think of it as a cup of kindness for times to come.


On my second visit I was presented with this. Head and claws, the Vietnamese langoustine finely apparelled! But sorry mate, in my books it’s no langoustine or crayfish but a long-arm freshwater prawn also known as Macrobrachium rosenbergii. I’m thorough that way and I still believe that good old king prawns taste a lot better than lobsters, crayfish and Vietnamese langoustines for that matter!

I began the meal with three starters.

Chim cút nướng- grilled quails.

Usually the poor bird is blackened to smithereens or half-cooked to encourage food poisoning, but here at Anh Đào I’ve eaten the best quail, full stop. It was beautifully grilled and indeed an unforgettable and celestial experience.

Chả mực- squid balls or patties.

Packed full of dill and herbs with chunky but tender squid pieces. A mouth-watering appetiser of addictive proportions. Therefore I’m pleased to state that these squid balls make all the other versions of calamari fritti or crispy squid mercilessly humdrum

Now I have to raise my arm up on this as I’ve forgotten what it was called. If what little memory I possess serves me right, it was king fish (not too unlike Spanish mackerel) on sticks (satay). The combination of the superbly prepared fish satays (with lemongrass, chilli, dill, fish sauce, etc) and the piquant peanut sauce was simply gorgeous. Stunning (if you can find it on the menu!).

Let’s be honest, three of the starters I’ve had here beat the shit out of the five small plates at the woeful Kopapa !

A veggie version of bún thịt nướng- rice vermicelli served cold with white radish (hate the word daikon), carrots, chilli, herbs, nước chấm (fish sauce) and a fried combo of tofu and aubergine in place of the usual grilled pork.

Please do bear in mind that the above was ‘off-piste’, as the vegetarian options on Anh Đào’s menu were somewhat lacking. And speaking of vegetarian dishes, a friend (a non-fish eating green bug) of a friend absolutely loves it passionately but she’s in constant denial with the nước chấm stuff, she thinks of it as a vinaigrette. I’ve been told to keep schtum ‘bout the whole thing…poor girl. Anyway, methinks a fulfilling dish, the lovely beancurd pieces are moreish enough to convince the meat-eaters.

Gratis test dish of cấn nước chả cá- a deep-fried and fishy version of the exceedingly tantalising and iconic Vietnamese ham sausage (Chả lụa ).

I loved it and can’t help but think that it should go down like a treat in Glasgow. Pescetarians, keep your fins crossed that it might become a permanent fixture on the menu.

More noodle frenzies...

...phở bò tái again!

Better on the second occasion, at least it came with the garnishes and the raw beef slices were of sound quality. The soup/broth was still hardly indicative (weak and flat), let’s just say that a non-Vietnamese like Rick Stein or come to that, yours truly, would make a better job at it! Based on my second sample, pho doesn’t rock at Anh Đào!

Bún chả giò- similar to bún thịt nướng but deep-fried spring rolls are substituted for the pork.

Miles better than the beef pho and a must-order at this place. A dish fit for the gods.


Third visit and no more bowls of pho for moi.

Veggie chả giò (spring rolls).

I’ve said it a hundred times before, everything that is fried is twice as nice. Recommended but alas, my vegan chums, I sense taints of fish sauce!

Nem cua- crab spring rolls.

An Anh Đào special and what a downright delight! Humongous amount of sweet crabmeat encased within the crispiest rice-crêpe imaginable. An absolute bargain at £5.50 and you owe it to yourself…a destination dish!

Cá tráp nướng- grilled seabream.

I’m not called Fat Pig Les for nothing, it was the biggest and plummiest fish I’ve ever had and all to myself! And to save the last and most obvious adjective, it was immensely delicious. A dish 2die4!

Vietnamese hot and sour soup with catfish- only ordered it to lubricate the fish and portion of rice.

A catalyst for dehydration, best stick to the Chinese version. However I suspect only the Salt Queen would praise it!

The crux is- Anh Đào comes highly recommended but avoid the Phở! Go à la carte or slightly off-piste if you’re vegetarian. Let Anh Đào blossom forever more!

*Was right and all, Google’s translation of tôm càng turns out to be crayfish!

106-108 Kingsland Road
London E2 8DP

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Cafe Luc

When’s a cheapskate not a cheapskate? When he fails to notice things like BOGOF offers on Big Macs, three multipacks of Walkers Salt & Vinegar crisps for less than three quid (that’s also in total- 2358 calories, 149.4g fat, 10.8g salt, etc) or a bottle of the truly vile FirstCape Red Cape wine drops to £2.99! But when’s a cheapskate on a higher level not a cheapskate’s on a higher level then? When he misses out on the opportunity to buy Frank Hederman’s definitive beech-smoked salmon for less than half price at Selfridges, or forgets to bring-your-own-bottle of Gewurztraminer Gesetz to Loong Kee Cafe and indeed overlooking the £1 offer at Cafe Luc!

I first read about Cafe Luc here. It was after reading Su-Lin’s review that I decided to subscribe to Café Luc’s mailing list. Thankfully it paid off with dividends. However, I must also admit that prior to reading the other various reviews of the place, I was entirely apprehensive and this could well do with Cafe Luc being Belgian; the unfortunate prejudice conjures up words like boring and unimaginative. I mean, I like moules and frites but our fish ‘n’ chips batters (NPI) it every time, and with no apologies here, Le Pain Quotidien sucks! As for the latter, go fly the flag for there’s nothing wrong with our very own Greggs! Once a cheapskate, always a cheapskate, that’s me (although altogether on a higher level)!

Cafe Luc brands itself as a European Grand Café, well, at least on my tab bar (Google Chrome) it does. It’s supposedly a brasserie but its interior, in which ‘relaxed’ and ‘upscale’ were deployed on their website, suggested more of a fourish star hotel dining-experience but without the dead calm and muzak. Typically the use of wood usually exudes warmth, but not so here, à la the David Collins School of design, the amount of wood used as shown has completely the opposite effect. The dining room is hopelessly lacking in character and I believe this greasy spoon down the road trumps it anytime! The service however, was exemplary, so much so Michel Roux and his first-class sidekick Fred Sirieix would’ve been proud.

I pressed my well-to-do buddy George along to Cafe Luc on the day of my £1 Menu booking. Now, if and when Cafe Luc decides to offer another sale like this again, beware of the conditions -

One £1 booking per table
One £1 booking per person
£1 deal is only valid for £1 menu
£1 bookings are only valid during the stipulated period.
The date of your £1 booking cannot be changed

George was made fully aware that he had to pay the full whack but not I. It was when we were shown to our table that I began to feel a little uneasy. ‘Who’s for the £1 Menu?’ the maître d’ asked. In the midst of the bourgeois atmosphere I sheepishly bleated me! George was presented with both the à la carte and lunch set menus. Now, George being part of the landed gentry, went à la carte and we both decided alcohol was off-limits as we both had to stay sober (him, bidding for some vintage Arne Jacobsen chairs and me to replace several needles on a DJ’s plethora of turntables). George ordered a litre of still mineral (he doesn’t do tap but he’s still a likeable snob if I may say so). Rather despairingly, I noticed from the neighbouring tables that l’eau tap was served in beautiful bottles that made our £3.50 Kentish water looked like we’ve been had!

The menu for the Baldrick kind (I have a cunning plan…I only pay a pound!).

George’s starter of cauliflower soup with coriander pesto and curry oil at £6.20.

Now at this point, George and I were wondering where the basket of bread was, in spite of being apparent on all the other tables. George politely exclaimed, ‘Perhaps it’s because you’re on the pound sponge and bread’s an additional premium!’ I said, ‘Old boy I didn’t bring you to bore me’ and flagged a waiter immediately about the bread. An oversight, we were assured by the front of house.
Anyway George thought the soup reminiscent of subtle brilliance. He was predictably pleased. I did try a spoonful, good but I couldn’t detect any curry spices, seeing that I’m so uncouth I’d rather have this any day. I would’ve been more contented if George had ordered the steak tartare instead!

Tut-tut. High class restaurant, chipped butter dish (more of an ashtray don’t you think?), health and safety, listeria, etc …

My starter of Country terrine and sourdough bread at 33.333p.

No complaints at that derisory price tag. Terrine's is terrine, this was thus so. Not keen on cornichons (always felt they were only binge fodder for pregnant ladies) but the jellied meat-stock cubes were outstanding.

George’s mains of cod at £19.50.

Served with scallops (not so, more like one but cut up in three pieces), celeriac puree, artichokes, leeks, chives and shavings of black truffle. The fish was beautifully roasted and the accompanying ingredients on the plate tasted ace. This was probably Michelin material as the whole dish was undeniably accomplished.

My mains of steak and chips at 33.333p.

No complaints at that derisory price tag I repeat. With peppercorn sauce and watercress leaves. Cooked medium rare as requested and George reckoned you couldn’t beat the Belgians when it comes to the pommes frites, I agreed. Peeps, if you’re reading this, my £1 Menu is based on the restaurant’s Set Menu (£16 for three courses) and the steak frites is I believe a permanent fixture. Now the word steak here (not necessarily at this establishment) can sound vague, it could be a cheaper cut of beef like hanger, onglet, rump or in my case here a discarded skinny sirloin; that means you’ll need to order the meat rare or medium rare otherwise the endless chewing activity would piss you off! I was also surprised by the quality of the cow eaten served here, it was admirably palatable. Well done Café Luc.

George’s pudding of roasted pineapple with coconut sorbet and pistachio at £7.30.

Pricey but beautifully executed. The whole dessert reminded me of a deconstructed piña colada without the rum. Just in case you’re wondering, that large ring of pineapple came from a fresh fruit as opposed to tinned. The pistachio and pink praline bits were a nice touch.

My pudding of Nutella crème brûlée at 33.333p.

No complaints at that derisory price tag; said thrice.
A signature dish at Cafe Luc. The portion was perhaps too large, served a little too cold, but nevertheless stupendously sweet! I strongly recommend a strong black coffee after this.

The £1 offer is a clever ploy- or rather a healthy gamble- on Cafe Luc’s behalf. As you can see, even without a drop of booze, your dining companion alone can rack up the bill considerably without much trouble. This is, after all, an expensive place for brasserie dining, but then again, we’re talking Marylebone High Street where budget is hardly an issue. I can somehow picture Cafe Luc as Marylebone’s equivalent of Oslo Court in months to come, a haven for the very rich and mature residents of the Howard de Walden Estate. Would I come back again? Yes- only if someone else is paying for me or I’ll have to wait patiently for the next £1 sale.

50 Marylebone High Street

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Tây Đô Restaurant

This post is about my fifteenth visit to Tây Đô and besides, The Pho Mile page needed a bit of updating. Just before I proceed I would like to ‘wikify’ my bit on the origins of Phở, the iconic Vietnamese noodle soup. Phở was and is technically based on and inspired by the South Chinese (both Cantonese and Hokkien) street and working class’ staple of broad rice-noodle soup (hor fun tong or kway teow soup). The Chinese would make the stock out of everything to do with a pig, in Hokkien its literal translation would be ‘pig head, pig bone soup’, but thankfully they veered towards a more harmonious description of ‘clear soup’ instead. The only adulteration imposed on the mildish ‘hor fun tong’ would be the optional additions of some chopped-up spring onions, white pepper and fresh cut chillies…but hardly ever herby! However the good North Vietnamese folks decided to up the ante and made the stock with everything to do with a cow instead, resulting in an immensely richer and emphatically yangish (yin and etc) broth and to which, they added cinnamon, star anise, fish sauce and sugar to further mollify the sense of taste. And in order to counter any yin and yang mishaps, our friends from Hanoi thoughtfully or perhaps more logically, served the end Phở dish with yingish accompaniments like basil, mint, coriander, wedge of lime (lemon in Blighty) and enough bean sprouts to feed the 5K. Like a fry-up, laksa, burger and unashamedly this; Phở is one of my Death Row last meals. A bowl of Phở is nutritiously holistic and the most fragrant thing ever.

Tây Đô is Vietnamese for the ‘western capital’. The restaurant is the larger sibling of Tây Đô Café, and they’re both established stalwarts on The Pho Mile. It’s also quite possibly the most prominent Vietnamese joint on the stretch of road with the largest amount of restaurant covers…it’s big! And like most Vietnamese eateries in London, only square or rectangle tables are utilised; roundtables are simply too Chinese and thus banquety. The service headed by a ‘front-of-house’ boss, who’s permanently watching the world go by and altogether inhibited behind the bar, is consistently more of a miss than hit. The young waiting staff, lacking English as a second language or let alone third and beyond, display little or no anthropomorphism acknowledgement to the simplest of requests. I suppose the usual consolation lies in the undetermined BYO policy…vague it may seem but I don’t think you’ll be turned away with your own bottles of Buds or Jacob's Creeks.

Enticing menu and typos withstanding.

It was a cold Sunday when I turned up here for lunch and so I duly ordered a hot Vietnamese coffee. Due to the ‘lost in translation’ moment an iced Vietnamese coffee arrived instead. I remonstrated, albeit politely, with the boy waiter that it was ‘hot’ I wanted. A couple minutes later he replaced the cold beverage with the above. Nescafé instant, WTF! Hey son, you pulling my Don Juan, what’s this? After five minutes of sign language and English pidgin with the boy waiter, I realised in the end that Tây Đô Restaurant only serves Vietnamese coffee ‘iced’ and hot coffee means instant! Teetotallers, my advice is to stick to green tea please.

I ordered the two following things to ensure that Tây Đô measures up to what Vietnamese fodder is all about in LONDON (and please give me break as I don’t mean Hanoi or HCM City)-

Bánh cuốn
Pork filled rice rolls. Not totally dissimilar to the Chinese cheung fun but more delicate and refined. Served with blanched bean sprouts, coriander and nước chấm (fish sauce based dipping sauce); the bánh cuốn rolls were steamed to perfection and, the pork and wood ear fungus (don’t be put off by this, if truffles sound ok then you’re fine) filling were excellent. A must have starter at this place, but perhaps a bit too much for a lone diner.

The Phở bò
Or to be precise the Phở đặc biệt (special pho).

Now if I were a Vietnamese diner I would expect tripe, tendon, heart plus the more desirable sounding bits. Alas for me, Tây Đô toned the whole dish down with only the latter by chucking in a generous amount of raw slices of beef from the lower chest of the cow (flank and brisket) and a lone beef meatball instead. This was a big bowl (and so it should, pho is after all a one meal dish) served with the textbook accompaniment of the usual herby garnishes. At least Tây Đô are on the right track with the presentation bit. Taste wise, a smidgen above average, the soup was short on depth and beefiness. Maybe if I turned up in the evening it would’ve been better instead. But don’t let that be an excuse as a bowl of pho is a breakfast dish in Vietnam.

Tây Đô is above ok and shouldn’t disappoint at best. Come here for the bánh cuốn, salt and pepper eel and bánh xèo (Vietnamese filled crepe) otherwise it’s strictly Plan B if you can’t get a table at Loong Kee Café, Hung Việt, or Que Việt .

60 Kingsland Road
E2 8DP