86 St John St
Tel: 020 7253 7624 (no bookings)
Nearest Tube/Rail: Barbican/Farringdon
Average: £12 (2 courses, inc. non alcoholic drink)
PHO - the name of Vietnam's national soul food. The self proclaimed "Vietnam in a bowl" cafe/restaurant has a lot to live up to, and being only 6 weeks old its definitely trying hard.
About 6 months ago, I stumbled upon an article in the Metro about a chain of Vietnamese restaurants called Pho from the good ol' U S of A which was about to launch its flagship store somewhere in London. Well, finally the mothership has landed. For those loyal readers, you can probably guess that the Hags rate Vietnamese food quite highly and are always in search for the perfect pho. So once we'd found out that Pho had arrived, we wasted no time in getting our grubbly paws on a steaming bowl of goodness. For the uninitiated pho (pronouced "fuh") is probably the most well known Vietnamese dish. On the back of its simple menu, PHO describes it as the national soul food of Vietnam and it also delves more into the history of pho. The combined influence of the French and Chinese resulted in this divine bowl of broth, beef (usually)and noodles. For those looking for more on this, check out the Pho King.
Educational as well as functional, the simple menu presented us with a choice of about 7 different types of pho ranging from variations of beef (meatballs, sliced beef, brisket etc), chicken, prawns and even a vegetarian. This Hag was also surprised by the the last pho entry of Pho Bo Hue - a traditional spicy soup based noodle dish which doesn't often make an appearance. Price for a bowl of pho ranges from around £6-£8, which isn't too bad considering that its right in the city.
For those who aren't so keen on the noodle soup concept, PHO also offers 4 different Bun dishes (vermicelli rice noodles with hot marinated toppings and herbs) which are normally served chilled and also Bahn Mi - the traditional Vietnamese sandwich. Again this was a surprise entry as these sandwiches, often with hot fillings such as meatballs, chicken and pork, are hard to find. Going backwards, the menu also offers a few traditional starters such as summer rolls (fresh rice paper rolls), fried spring rolls and Vietnamese savoury crepes filled with crunchy bean sprouts, chicken and prawns. Overall the menu, although not extensive, was still quite impressive. PHO claims to try and maintain the high quality of pho served by devoting its attention on its signature dish - pho.
So 6 weeks after its grand opening, Pho has attracted quite a following. The Man and myself arrived to find no available tables but offered to wait. The staff were attentive and apologetic as they don't operate on bookings but rather a first come, first serve basis. So whilst waiting for a free table, we had time to decide what we wanted to sample tonight. The wait for a table wasn't too arduous as after 10 minutes we were shown to our table with our orders ready. Once seated, the Man was delighted to find that like most traditional (well, Western type traditional - I doubt that you might find these on the streets of Hanoi!) Vietnamese cafes, each table was set with the pre-requisite bottle of vietnamese bbq and chilli sauce.
Well, it was definitely a good start anyways. After our drinks orders were dispensed - traditional vietnamese coffee and home made lemonade, both excellent - we got down to business. For starters, we'd settled on a serve of prawn summer rolls and a Vietnamese crepe with chicken and prawns. Both arrived quite promptly, even though our waiter had informed us that the crepe may take a couple minutes longer than the rolls it wasn't too long before we could tuck in.
The summer rolls were light and definitely tasty, although the accompanying dipping sauce lacked the usual punch. More fish sauce please! The crepe looked fantastic and went down well, but again the accompanying dipping sauce (nuoc cham) lacked the characteristic salty punch - defintely the lightweight version of what we're accustomed to.
For our mains, The Man had to have his fix of pho and settled on Pho Tai - sliced beef noodle soup. I'd decided to try their Bun dishes and went for the Bun with juicy prawns (who can resist juicy prawns, I ask ya?). Again, both mains arrived quite swiftly after our starters were cleared away, which was fine by us as we were quite hungry. Our anticipation for Vietnamese had whetted the appetite and cravings to a frenzy and the time had come.
And the verdict.....a little disappointing. Don't get us wrong, both dishes were quite nice but again, lack the punch and felt quite under spiced. The Pho Tai broth lacked depth, but perhaps it could be due to it being a fresh batch. Our waiter had informed us that they'd been so busy tonight that they'd had to break out their extra stash from the fridge. My vermicelli rice noodles came with all the right accompaniments and the prawns were indeed juicy and quite a generous portion too, I might add. But as with the starters, the accompanying dipping sauce (again nuoc cham) lacked the punch and was quite plain. Towards the end, I gave up eating it as I just got bored. Yes, believe it or not, I got bored of eating it.
Overall, our meal wasn't a total disappointment - the starters were nice, if a little bland. But for a restaurant/cafe to hang its mantle on being pho specialists, its still got some way to go.