29 August 2011
A unique skill is needed to be a silver service waiter. The finesse comes with the ability to get plates of elegantly presented food to, and finished plates from, a customer in as organised a fashion as possible. The reveal adds to the art, plates delivered and removed with the bare minimum of fuss and if you ever watch an exponent of the art, he or she can clear your table effortlessly, any detritus at the end of the meal less than a hiccup in their perfect plan for your dining. The team at Song Que would, I suspect, laugh at this description of the role of a waiter. Here there really is only one aim, to get you through as quick as possible to make room for the next party already huddled round the entrance. No reservations taken and no quarter given. Get in, order, eat and get out…
A large, high ceilinged space, clean, perfunctory and sparsely decorated with the sort of geometric, clashing, faux leather backed chairs you'd find in an Essex boys dining room in the 80's. There's a large painting on one wall, it might be of a village in Vietnam, local to the owner, it might equally be from nearby Broadway market, the design isn't the point here. There are nods to the ‘proper’ way to do a restaurant, an attempt at an unused back bar for example. A random bottle of Baileys sits on the shelf, disconsolately explaining to a neighbouring dusty Malibu that the vast majority of the punters will be going straight for one of the many different fresh juices, or the imported delights of Hue or Saigon, crisp Vietnamese lagers that cut through the spice to follow.
With the service being so speedy, you'll be pleased to know the preparation is very much planned in advance. Of all the dishes Vietnamese cuisine is known for my favourite is the humblest, a bowl of Pho done well has few equals. Light beef stock simmered for hours with a blend of spices including fennel, coriander and star anise before the meats are dumped in at the last minute, bean sprouts and aromatics left to be added tableside. It's the speciality at Song Que, with nearly 30 variants, and after a selection of starters, a keenly priced bowl filled with noodles, that broth, melting thin sliced steak and a scattering of tripe and tendon (worth it, and so soft here) is enough for most people. There's such a depth of flavour in the stock that you're not going to want to season with the obligatory Sriracha hot sauce, but I tend to dip the strips of beef and tripe in to a side pot, but then I'm a chilli hound.
Coming back to the starters, a few are worthwhile and interesting, though the Pho really is the thing. (If you want a selection of authentic and delicious Vietnamese starters to build a meal around then nearby Viet Grill is possibly a better option.) We went for their standout grilled beef in betel leaves, the soft and juicy little packages sweetly moreish, fried spring rolls, softshell crab and squid (the latter a little too batter coated for me, though it went swiftly enough).
While it's not somewhere for a date, the sight of you licking Pho from your chin is enough to put off all but the most ardent admirers, it's one of the better places for a ribsticking pre or post session bite or a swift lunch along the Kingsland Road.