There's something about Vietnamese cooking that defies mass production: the zinginess of fresh herbs just wouldn't translate to a chain of outlets (a sentence of course that tempts providence big time). Which makes eating Vietnamese in London such a enjoyable experience – you need to hunt it down (usually in the lower stretch of the Kingsland Road where everyone has his or her favourite – I love Sông Quê for its buzz as well as its evidently very fresh food and the speed of its service). Some people swear by Cây Tre at Old Street; well Cây Tre has just opened an outpost in Dean Street, Soho, a long thin sliver of a restaurant stylishly decked out in black and white.
One warning: this is a place where the staff have a penchant (or dictat) for bunching everyone up on adjacent tables, a policy that backfires as they have to squeeze awkwardly between tables to bring the food. When the back two-thirds of the place was empty it seems a bit unnecessary to sit cheek by jowl with one's neighbours gazing into a largely empty restaurant (of course it does mean you can have a good look at what's being served to the tables alongside – which is always useful!). Service is a tad languid but the staff are pleasant and friendly.
We opted for four starters rather than anything more. First to arrive was the La Vong Grilled Fish (£13 for two) which is ‘stir fried’ at the table: rest assured, sizzling woks and boiling oil under one's nose this is not, rather a gentle folding of copious quantities of dill and spring onions together over some previous cooked monkfish, all done on a rather cute little camping stove that has the misfortune to sport an ‘Explosion Hazard’ sticker on its side. But hey, an element of danger always livens things up, and I dare say the financial settlement would be useful once the inevitable scarring had subsided. Served over a little bowl of rice noodles moistened with a rather ferocious fish-sauce blend, this was a delicious starter.
The other three dishes arrived simultaneously: a pair of lovely and clearly just made Goûi cuoán (£5) – summer spring rolls, full of crisp leaves, herbs and prawns tightly wrapped in a slightly rubbery outer skin, accompanied by a perky dipping sauce to give them a bit of kick. The Cha La Lot (£7.50) comprises small parcels of ground pork wrapped in grilled betel leaves accompanied by more noodles and peanuts – they look a bit like miniature dolmades and are very tasty (though I prefer Sông Quê's method of serving which lets you make your own little lettuce parcels with pickled root vegetables to perk up the noodles). Our last dish was Chefs Vinh Beef (£9.50), little lumps of rib eye served with a dipping sauce: I found them a little uninspiring – neither the beef nor the dipping sauce had anything particularly distinctive about it (not that it wasn't a decent bit of meat). My guest thought otherwise, and much enjoyed the sauce.
Prices are generally ?1.50-?2 more than Cây Tre's Old Street outpost, but then the location comes with an inevitably higher ticket price. A couple of bottles of Tiger (£4.50 each)and a couple of glasses of Rousanne (£6 each) brought the bill in at ?63 (service included). Next time, I'll sample the Phô which I got a good look at thanks to the sardine-like seating arrangement: and it did look good!