As concepts go, meat between bread has been around for a fair few years. So why is it only in the last ten that people have decided to really start experimenting? My theory is that in a world where caviar is being mixed with chocolate and ice cream glows in the dark, it’s the equivalent of ‘back to the future-ing’ the bandwagon. You’re certainly not driving, or even sleeping in the back seat. You’re stuck way out behind, dodging trucks of manure irresponsibly parked in the middle of the road.
Pho & Bun, the second endeavour from the founders of Viet Eat, haunts the edges of China Town. The inside is like a pastiche of Vietnam, with cartoonish sketches and black and white scenes strewn across the walls. The cosy wooden ground floor room has a real intimacy to it and a slightly sour, but reassuringly fresh smell of lemongrass permeates the place. I didn’t even realise the restaurant extends quite expansively downstairs until the inevitable stumble down the stairs halfway through the meal, and then twice more towards the end. The beer was good.
However, my experience of Vietnamese restaurants thus far has not been good, and I’ll be honest, hearing that an aspiring chain (probably) had decided to create their own take on a good old fashion burger did not fill me with confidence. In all my constant fretting about the burger I forgot that first and foremost Pho & Bun is a Vietnamese restaurant, and as it turns out, it’s a pretty damn good one.
Being relative novices to Vietnamese food, we asked our sympathetic waiter to choose for us. I will begin by saying he overfed us, gloriously. I left the restaurant feeling like a stuck Vietnamese pig, but at least the food that so convexed my belly was mostly delicious, with a few exceptions.
First was a Vietnamese take on salt and pepper squid. The little deep fried morsels were colourfully escorted by a plateful of vermicelli and chilli. The mixture of the melt in the mouth, heavily seasoned squid with the soft vermicelli and the kick of the chilli made it no ordinary squid ring; and far better than most I’ve had before, which tend to hit way too hard on the seasoning and oil.
Our second recommendation was even better, and a highlight I would go back for. In a translucent wrapping reminiscent of bioluminescent jellyfish, came thick juicy tiger prawns surrounded by vermicelli noodles, coriander and mint. In fact these surprisingly filling parcels had me so enraptured I decided to work out how to make my own. Not only did I find a recipe for them, but I found the recipe for them from Pho & Bun. If you get the chance make them, trust me it’s worth it.
While tucking into our third course, a huge beef pho, owner Andy Le joined us. I have met a number of owners, managers and partners and there is something that struck me about Andy Le in particular. He didn’t really seem like one. There was none of the faux bonhomie. If anything he was mildly awkward. I liked him immediately and much like his pho he had a subtle quality to him that added to the intimacy of the experience.
Unfortunately after the pho, my swollen belly yearned for rest, and the centrepiece, the bastardised burger was without doubt their first (though only) mistake. Heavy, greasy, well-seasoned ground beef has no place inside light and fluffy, but mostly bland, milk steamed buns. It’s a serious issue and it’s disappointing that it’s how they’re trying to set themselves apart. It looks pretty, but it just tastes wrong. I regret that I did not try the king prawn burger or even the pork as they may have been a better match. Rather than tasting original or interesting, the serious hunk of overcooked beef in the middle just made the otherwise exquisitely soft bread taste like the worst quality buns you get from Tesco.
My advice for Pho & Bun is delete the bun. Scratch it letter by letter from the history books and play to your strengths. Burgers are overworked anyway. If you’re going to play vicariously with western fusion why not get a little more creative? I would personally pay a good chunk of money to try Vietnamese toad in the hole from the Pho & Anchor. So let’s forget the bun and focus on Viet Eat. They have achieved one thing with the meal – yet another convert to Vietnamese cuisine. I am still not going to go hunting for Pho, but I may well spend a while searching for the best summer rolls, and that’s certainly a step in the right direction.
76 Shaftesbury Avenue
Tel: 020 7287 3528