Vietnamese food is unique and delightful. There are some ingredients and influences which echo its neighbours, but it has a tradition all of its own. I love Vietnamese food and attempted to learn how to cook some of the dishes of this marvellous cuisine from cookbook author, writer, filmmaker and supperclub host Uyen Luu. I wrote about my experience here: http://snigskitchen.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/back-to-school-leluus-vietnamese.html Uyen's blog can be found here:http://www.leluu.com/
However, it is not easy. Vietnamese food involves many ingredients which are hard to obtain. Fresh herbs are a cornerstone of Vietnamese dishes, using varieties seldom found in other cuisines. Parilla, Cockscomb and hot mint, saw tooth... these have to be bought in specialist Vietnamese stores, and even then you are not guaranteed to find them all. Then there is specialist equipment required for some dishes; banh beo steamer dishes, banana leaves, clay pots.
Vietnamese food is becoming increasingly fashionable, and we have all manner of small cafes and restaurants popping up. Many think that popping some chili, salad and marinaded grilled pork into a baguette immediately equals banh mi. Not so! And the crimes against the national dish, Pho Bo, are ones I don't care to chronicle here other than noting that bland stock and meagre toppings are the rule rather than the exception.
Cay Tre has a long standing reputation in London as being a great place for Vietnamese food, located in the Vietnamese community in the Pho Mile. They have branched out into a couple of other ventures, Cay Tre Soho, Viet Grill and Keu! (all under the Vietnamese Kitchen label), but Cay Tre Hoxton is the original.
I visited with some friends for lunch and ordered a variety of dishes across the menu. We had a very pleasant and memorable time.
Chilli Salt & Pepper Squid £8.50
Perhaps not the most exotic of the starters we ordered, the salt and pepper squid was nevertheless very good indeed. Lightly coated in an uncloying batter, these have been fried quickly and over a high heat to leave them perfectly cooked, crunchy crusted externally but yielding on the inside.
Chef Vinh's Beef £9.50 "Charcoaled ribeye, lemongrass, ginger sauce."
Beautifully marinaded in an aromatic marinade and grilled until just cooked, this was a real highlight of our meal. A lovely starter.
Grilled Calamari & Okra £9 "Lemongrass, dill and fermented soy bean."
The calamari and okra were marinaded in the lemongrass, dill and soy bean before being grilled until just cooked. The picture doesn't do the dish any justice as the artificial light masks the translucence of the calamari. I had not come across this combination of ingredients and flavours, which worked well together. The cooks here carefully avoid overcooking the seafood dishes, probably the easiest way of ruining good quality ingredients.
La Vong Grilled Monkfish (for two) £7.50 per person "Galangal, tumeric, dill, cooked at your table."
The monkfish was prepared in small chunks underneath all the herbs in the small frying pan on top of the portable gas burner.
I'm a real sucker for any dish which is prepared at the table, be it crepes suzette or something similar. It's part theatre, part wonder.
Thankfully we were treated to so much more than just spectacle. The dish was flavourful, the monkfish having been marinated in the galangal and turmeric before the tableside cooking and was served with rice vermicelli, a sauce made of shrimp paste softened in water, and herbs.
Grilled Piggy Aubergine £6.50 "Minced pork, spring onion oil, nuoc cham"
This is a treat of a starter! The aubergine is skinless, and cooked until it is so soft it barely needs chewing. The contrast with the gentle meaty chewiness of the minced pork shows you how much of Vietnamese food is about the combination of texture as it is about flavour. The nouc cham adds a balance of flavours which is characteristically Vietnamese; sweet, sour, salty and bitter, the balance which similarly is the aim of Thai dishes.
Campfire Hanger Steak £12 "Claypot cooked with oyster sauce, onion"
Cooked in a clay pot with oyster, garlic and copious amounts of fried onion, the closed pot is brought to your table on another plate. This plate has a ring of clear substance around it which is lit at your table. It glows blue, keeping your stewed steak hot whilst you sample the other dishes. The presentation, complete with a flourish as the lid is removed, is pure theatre.
The beef is tender and slow cooked, the sauce full of umami flavours. Topped with lots of glorious finely diced garlic, the beef in clay pot was a complete delight. Garlic is one of my favourite things in all the world, and thankfully my friends think the same. We tucked in with gusto and enjoyment.
Mekong Catfish Claypot £9.50 "Braised in caramelised in fish sauce."
Another clay pot dish! We just could NOT resist! This is a traditional Vietnamese dish and my friend who spent time travelling there suggested we order it to get a taste of real Vietnamese food. The dish arrived in similar fashion to the steak, with its parafin halo lit at your table to keep it hot before it is unveiled in all of its splendour! The catfish was sweet, light yet with gentle firmness of texture. The sauce had the caramel flavours of Nouc Mau Due Ben Tre (Vietnamese coconut caramel) cooked in fish sauce and spice. Combined with a little steamed rice, each mouthful was heavenly.
Roasted Spring Chicken Royale £12 "Marinated with honey, five spice & dried herbs."
Tremendously aromatic, this was a dish I would love to be able to make for a Sunday lunch with a difference! The marinade permeates the skin completely, giving it wonderful flavours, and all of the meat is scented with the warming five spice. The only issue which this dish will create is who gets the best bits of the whole chicken!
We had the wokked egg noodles at £6 and some Jasmine rice (£5 for a tub) as an accompaniment.
The noodles were rapidly stir fried with a little egg, some onion and beansprouts. In other places, the noodles come out disappointingly greasy, but these were not so. I preferred the dishes we ordered with Jasmine rice, because I actually love rice, but the noodles were a good accompaniment too.
The service was polite and friendly. When we needed explanations of what some of the dishes were, there was no issue, we were given that explanation, and sometimes twice with patience and grace. Our party did not all arrive at once, yet the early arrivers were permitted to take our seats and wait for the others with no fuss or objection. Our monkfish was cooked at our table with the care and skill of a server who wanted us to enjoy our meal. A couple of the staff members are a little quiet and shy, possibly because English is their second (although more likely third or fourth) language, but there was no miscommunication, and they wanted to help us as much as possible. I felt that they genuinely cared about our experience.
Cay Tre Hoxton has recently been refurbished. It is still an informal and canteeny style place rather than a fine dining restaurant. Actually, that's how I prefer it. When I come to place like this, I don't want fussy tablecloths and fish knives. I don't want fussing about and my napkin being put across my chair back when I go to the bathroom. I've come to the Pho Mile, and I've come for a down to earth and authentic experience. It is all about sharing good food with good friends.
Perhaps at dinner time when the place is close to being full, it could be noisy. Most Central London restaurants tend to be. Current dining fashion dictates no soft furnishings; no fabric covered seats or carpets or curtains. No wonder the sound bounces off all the hard shiny surfaces! If you don't like noise have lunch here or go somewhere else. During our visit the place was half full with a pleasant buzz of conversation, energy and the sight of other diners enjoying their food. That's the kind of atmosphere I love.
Unless you've booked your tickets for the Reunification Express anytime soon, what have you got to lose? Come and give Cay Tre a go!
Snigdha and her friends paid honestly earned moolah for their meal.
301 Old Street
(020) 7729 8662
301 Old Street
(020) 7729 8662