It‘s not every day I get to dine at a restaurant with a name I am not sure how to pronounce. French names, Italian names, German names – bring them on: it seems that I have picked up a working knowledge of the pronunciation of most Western European languages since moving to London. But I think it is safe to say that my knowledge of Vietnamese pronunciation could fit into a very small thimble. I have no more clue now than I did when I did when I first read Graham Greene’s The Quiet American as a teenager, and pondered endlessly on how to pronounce Phuong’s name.
I am told that the correct pronunciation of Pho is” fuh” not “foe” and it is not only the name of a small chain of Vietnamese restaurants in London, but also the name of a Vietnamese dish consisting of a specific cut of white rice noodles in clear beef broth together with slim cuts of beef, with various fresh vegetables and chillies on the side. With my knowledge of Vietnamese cuisine being approximately on par with my knowledge of Vietnamese pronunciation, when I was recently invited to review Pho Spitalfields, I took along a friend of mine who is far wiser in the ways of Vietnamese cuisine than me!
Pho Spitalfields is situated over two floors of a narrow old building typical of the area between Brick Lane and Liverpool Street station. Stepping off a busy London street on a chilly evening and into Pho feels a little like Alice stepping through the looking glass. The space is small and busy, with a retro neon sign straight out of a movie set of Saigon and pretty shadows cast by the round woven bamboo lampshades lends the whole place the atmosphere of what I imagine a Saigon café to feel like. A fun touch is that diners get to play DJ: download Pho’s app while seated at your table and you get to control the restaurant’s virtual jukebox and pick the musical accompaniment to your meal! Although there is more space upstairs, I was pleased when we were given a recently-vacated table downstairs by the window even though the table was pretty cramped once the food started arriving! Our super-friendly waiter explained the menu to us and soon our starters arrived:
Goi Cuon Tom (£4.45) are fresh summer rolls filled with prawns and fresh herbs and as choice of nuoc cham or peanut sauce. I found the wrapper quite thick and chewy and therefore hard to bite through. My friend also commented that the noodles inside were a little thick, so the whole thing is a little starchy. But I did love the fresh flavours of mint and prawn, and the umami-rich peanut sauce. More to my taste were the Cha Gio (£4.75) – deep-fried pork Vietnamese spring rolls. These were light, crisp and not at all greasy, as well as being packed with filling and flavour. Very moreish.
Next up was the Banh Xeo Tom Ga (£6.95 – available evenings only): a traditional Vietnamese crêpe filled with prawns, chicken and bean sprouts. Leave behind all your thoughts about limp French crêpes – this arrives looking more like a giant prawn cracker, folded in half with filling spilling out on all sides. The secret to eating it is to break off chunks of the pastry and filling, add some fresh herbs, and wrap it in the accompanying lettuce leaves before dipping it in the sauce. I loved everything about this dish – from the crispiness of the pancake and sprouts to the juicy chicken and prawns, to the messy eating. But most of all I adored the fresh herbs which included a kind of mint leaf that is totally purple on the back with a deeply pungent flavour. Heavenly.
This was followed by the restaurant’s eponymous dish – the pho. I tried the Pho Tai Chin with steak and brisket (£7.95) – a beef broth containing slices of steak and brisket, bean sprouts and spring onions, plus a plate on the side containing more sprouts, fresh herbs, lime and chillies which you could add to the broth as desired. I felt the broth could have done with more umami flavour; and because the brisket was far more thinly sliced than steak, the steak was unnecessarily chewy by comparison. But big bonus points for the excellent fresh herbs (holy basil, mint, coriander) and the little red chillies which were by far the hottest things I have ever put in my mouth! My dinner companion had the Bun Bo Hue: hot and spicy brisket beef soup served with a chilli shrimp paste (£8.25) which she pronounced to be a little under-flavoured too, but she did like the spicy chilli shrimp paste.
After all this, we still managed to find room for dessert. For me, this meant honey and ginger ice cream from La Maison de Sorbets (£3.50). I adored this – creamy honeyed ice-cream studded with sliver of candied ginger. A subtly spiced and perfect end to the meal. I also tried a nibble of my companion’s Chuoi Chien – deep-fried banana fritters with a choice of honey ginger or coconut ice cream (£4.75) – and this proved to be surprisingly enjoyable for someone who does not eat bananas! I loved the excellent light and crispy batter, and the subtle caramelly changes that deep-frying made to the banana’s flavour.
And with that, it was time to step back out into the reality of the chilly London streets. We were warm, full and happy – and all this would have cost us under £30 per head (not something you often get to say in the Square Mile). As it was my first experience with pho, I am not going to pretend to speak authoritatively about it as I have nothing to compare it to – but if you are hesitant about trying an exotic new cuisine, I would recommend Pho as the super-friendly and helpful staff will guide you through the menu and ensure you choose things that do not frighten your palate too much! I also loved the buzzy atmosphere and the novel “citizen DJ” concept and I can definitely say I’ll be back to try more of the menu.
Liked: the decor, the super-friendly staff, the crispy crêpes
In a nutshell: A good introduction to Vietnamese food that won’t scare your tastebuds or your wallet
Wow factor out of 10: 7
DISCLOSURE: I enjoyed this meal as a guest of Pho but received no remuneration other than the meal itself, and all opinions expressed are my own.
48 Brushfield Street
Tel. +44 (0)020 7377 6436