(REVIEW OF SOHO BRANCH) I know good food. I know what it should taste like, how it should look, what the portion sizes should be and how I should feel once I've left a restaurant. Vietnamese food is definitely a favourite of mine; I love it's capacity to fill you up without feeling nauseous or heavy. On the contrary, Vietnamese food is so fresh in flavour, packed herbs, vegetables and plenty of full-flavoured, cleansing dishes bursting with ginger and lemongrass aromas.
When a friend asked me to join her at the newly opened Cay Tre Soho, I was excited to try something different to my usual favourite Vietnamese joint ‘Mien Tay’. The restaurant decor is incredibly different to the usual interiors of a Vietnamese restaurant. Slick white tiled walls, New York-style canteen design with modern accents and lighting house a 50 cover restaurant. Staff seem friendly, if a tad impersonal. The menus are printed on paper placemats and the selection is rather smaller than I'm accustomed to and many of the dishes are the same you will find in most Vietnamese restaurants… Not too many of the dishes stand out as unusual or unique to Cay Tre.
We ordered a selection of starters including classic Vietnamese spring rolls, spicy beef and papaya salad as well as spicy barbecue pork ribs. The ribs were very nice and rather more different than I have tasted anywhere previously; my usually favourite dish of spicy beef salad with a soggy let down of pre-prepared, overly macerated shredded vegetables with flabby, unappealing slices of cheap brisket meat instead of the usual chewy matchsticks of beef. The spring rolls were very good but with just 2 per serving, the portion was a surprisingly meagre. We did wonder if this had something to do with the soft opening offer of 50% off; technically the discount should not have made the slight bit of difference and it was a shame that they scrimped on something so low cost.
The main courses were unfortunately an even greater disappointment; Mekong catfish in a sweet, rich sauce with notes of hoi-sin was an unusual pairing. The catfish was overcooked somewhat and flabby in texture, akin to that of black cod. Not a winning dish for me but I had high hopes for my choice of soft shell crab and tamarind curry. All I can say is what a complete an utter disappointment. A small bowl of brown, unappetising sludge was placed before us, with deep pools of oil and underneath lay one anorexic soft shell crab hiding underneath a mass of brown gloop. We divided the tiny little crab (which at £11.50 was a total rip-off) and as soon as I bit into it, I had to contend with bits that needed to be spat out. There was, in actual fact, very little that was ‘soft’ about the shell of this crab. Every mouthful required a seperation of shell/legs from soft white meat. The sauce had no obvious tamarind flavour and instead was an oily, unpleasant, heavily-spiced mess. To make matters worse, we we served these bizarre looking limp, stale rice lumps shaped into little cigars, which were cold and to be honest, I have absolutely NO IDEA what part they played in this whole ordeal.
Needless to say, dessert wasn't on the cards and to be fair, we both felt quite sick. Not the usual feeling I would associate with a lovely meal at a Vietnamese restaurant… and the next day? Our sickness showed no signs of holding back and gave us our money's worth for the better part of a whole day. The words NEVER GOING BACK spring to mind when I think of Cay Tre. I find it hilarious that so many people have been raving about how great it is, when the 2 other tables we spoke to that evening, echoed our sentiments in their entirety. All I can say is thank god we paid just 50% of the overal price, because that was most definitely all it was worth.
Mien Tay is still the BEST food, value and Vietnamese eatery in town and I believe AA Gill wholeheartedly agrees with me!