Urban Orient is a small informal, cafe style restaurant. It is situated in one of South East London's highest point, Crystal Palace, famous for the huge television aerial visible throughout the local area. 10-15 years ago, this was seen as a rough and run down place, but now is spruced up and loved. Cute little independent shops thrive here, notably the lovely clothes and gifts shop South Of The River, Bookseller Crow On The Hill and the cheese shop round the corner.
This is an unpretentious little place which has been open for over a year. It was recently taken over by new management, who have done their best to retain the understated homely decor and select menu with rotating specials.
Prawn dumplings, £3.50
These were sweet little dumplings (often called crystal dumplings because of their thin translucent rice skin), very reminiscent of Har Kau. They were generously filled with a good amount of prawn, tasting soft skinned, yet firm inside, with a delicate flavour. They were particularly good with the sweet soy sauce they were served with. A very pleasing beginning.
The Vietnamese spring rolls, £4.80
Filled with prawn, pork, squid, glass noodle (made of mung bean flour), grated carrot, and onion, these were deep fried until crispy on the outside and served with a dipping sauce made from rice wine vinegar, and freshly chopped red chili. Perhaps a little less of the carrot would have improved the filling, since it threatened to be the dominant texture, but the mixed meat and seafood were apparent.
Vietnamese beef carpaccio £6.50
Beef tenderloin slices marinaded in a combination of lime juice, pineapple juice (a natural meat tenderiser), sesame seeds, herbs, topped with dried fried onion. This was served with a 'secret sauce' made of 3 traditional Vietnamese sauces blended together in a side bowl for dipping. Personally, I thought the beef was more 'cooked' by the marinade than I would have preferred. For me, a carpaccio should have a rawness remaining in the meat or fish. However, Him Indoors thought the beef was just right. I found the marinade to be a well balanced set of flavours, with the citrus-y zing tasting fresh rather than overly sour. The 'secret sauce' had a sweet and tamarind-tinged thickness which was pleasing and complimentary. Not your typical carpaccio, but inventive, healthy and enjoyable.
Bun Chay with lemongrass pork £7.95
This dish had tasty marinaded grilled pork, which was a little sticky. It was served with cooked and cooled thin rice noodles served with beansprouts and peanuts. The dressing, Vietnamese Nuoc Cham, was served in a side bowl for dipping or pouring, as required. It was enjoyable healthy food.
Coconut steamed pork £8.50 (served with steamed rice)
Pork belly cubes, and a boiled then fried whole egg, slowly stewed with star anise and coconut juice (not coconut milk). A pleasant dish, this had light gravy full of the flavours of slow cooked pork, ginger and traditional spices. It was interesting how the gravy could have been thick, heavy and hearty, but its lightness allowed the pork to do all the talking. I have to say that I was not so keen on the stewed fried egg. I have had similar dishes before with 'golden' eggs - hens' eggs or quails' eggs which have been hard boiled and then allowed to sit in the stew, which I much prefer. But everyone has different tastes and I imagine there are many who would enjoy the egg in the manner served here.
The food overall is very good, and you would be pleased to have a place like this in your neighbourhood. The places in the Pho Mile of Kingsland Road are probably a level up from this place on food quality, but you have the inconvenience of getting there if you are in South London. One criticism I would have of Urban Orient is that for me, it is the use of fresh herbs which makes Vietnamese food so good. It is the sweet basil, varieties of mint, perilla and coriander which make the salads taste fresh, clean and zingy. There wasn't enough use of herb flavours in the Carpaccio or the Bun Chay, and there was no use of the more traditionally Vietnamese herbs, which I would have expected.
The cost of the dishes has been raised by other diners. I don't have any complaint. London is expensive, rates are expensive, ingredients are expensive. The fact that I could bring wine and beer (see below) brought the bill down considerably on what I would have paid for lunch anywhere else in the Crystal Palace area, so it seems somewhat churlish to moan.
Being a 'BYO' (bring your own booze) establishment means that guests have to ensure they plan in advance, remembering a bottle of wine or beer before coming. One advantage is that this inevitably keeps the overall cost of a meal down. Another advantage is the ability to match your drink to you own individual taste. We chose a Domaine du Bosc, Sauvignon-Viognier Pays d'Oc, 2010 from the Wine Society, which they describe as "A deliciously fruity blend of sauvignon and viognier with a little chardonnay and muscat for a touch more complexity. This tastes round, fresh, fruity with good length of flavour." We had hoped that the dominance of Sauvignon blanc would give it a smooth fruitness which would complement both the fresh flavours of the herbs and the heat of any chillis. We were pleased with our choice.
Corkage is a very reasonable £3 for a bottle of wine or £1 for beer.
The juice drinks (some are available hot, such as the lime and ginger - perfect for the sniffles) are healthy and fresh, and are keenly priced, from £1.80 to £2.50.
Service is now full table service. You no longer have to pay at the till. The service is friendly, informal and efficient.
Overall, I did enjoy my meal and I would go back.
74 Westow Street London SE19 3AF
020 8616 4511
Him Indoors and I paid proper dough for our meal.