Sunday 17 March 2013

Pho frenzy - putting a personal twist on Vietnam's national dish

Spicy Pho Tai Chin

You know that I love eating comforting rich meals like hearty casseroles and crumbles as much as (ok, maybe even more than!) the next person. But I'm keen to make sure that I offset this decadence with a lot of clean living too. The healthy Vietnamese noodle soup at the forefront of Pho's menu has always appealed to my inner fitness fan, so it was a serious bit of luck on my part when I was invited along to their Spitalfields branch to test out the menu for free.

The timing was less fortunate however; no sooner had I set a date for my Pho frenzy when I was summoned to Eastleigh to run the media visits programme for the Liberal Democrats' (victorious) by-election campaign. My arteries and I were grateful for the much-needed break from the inevitable #byelectiondiet of greasy desk-based takeaways, but my extended stint electioneering means I'm only able to share this review now that life's settling back to normal. I really hope the generous people at Pho don't think that I nicked their noodles for no good reason!

Blossoming flower teas at Pho

I knew that my friend Jamie from Peanut Butter and J would be the perfect plus-one for my trip to Pho; she's a proper Bikram yoga bunny and so stylish that she was on trend before anyone had even heard of Shoreditch, so I knew that Vietnamese street food would be right up her alley.

We met on a seemingly freezing February night (little did we know it would still be snowing in March?!), and decided to forgo the appetising array of freshly squeezed juices in favour of a duo of beautiful blossoming flower teas. My Yulan tea was the ideal balance between strength and fragrance, and as someone who has a bad habit of downing their drinks in one go, I was particularly grateful for the unlimited refills.

Goi cuon Tom summer rolls at Pho

Our meal began with a plate of those addictive prawn crackers, and a portion of the Gui Cuon Tom - summer rolls with prawns and fresh herbs. Normally I'd skip the starters to leave space for dessert, but these rolls were so light and refreshing that we didn't need to worry. Our waitress kindly let us try both the peanut sauce and the nuoc cham (which appeared to be a spicier version of the classic fish sauce) to see which we preferred; the rich peanut lacquer won hands down.

My mouth was also watering imagining the Banh Xeo Tom Ga - a traditional Vietnamese crepe filled with prawns, chicken and beansprouts - so I'm definitely trying that another time!

Pho's beef steak and brisket noodle soup

As this was my first trip to Pho, it seemed only right that I try the restaurant's namesake for my main course. There was a huge variety of "fuh" to tempt me, but eventually I settled on the Pho Tai Chin - thinly sliced beef steak, brisket, rice noodles and spring onions, served in a beef stock that is authentically cooked from scratch for up to 12 hours.

The giant noodle soup placed in front of me looked so restorative that I couldn't help but dive in immediately, and I was struck by the subtly of the broth's flavour. To be honest I had expected the chunks of beef brisket to be slightly thicker to contrast with the steak, but there was so much meat hidden in the depths of the bowl that this didn't matter.

Aromatics for pho noodle soup

You are invited to put your own personal twist on Vietnam's national dish by incorporating any mixture of herbs from the impressive aromatic garnish that is served alongside the noodle; there were so many unknown leaves to choose from that I felt like an instruction manual would have come in handy!

My pho became turbo-charged as I experimented with the chillies and the collection of spicy condiments on offer at the table, blowing away the byelection cobwebs and giving my metabolism a boost.

Bun noodles with pork meatballs and vegetable spring roll at Pho

Jamie opted for the Bun Cha Goi Nem Nuong - cold vermicelli rice noodles with pork and lemongrass meatballs, which was served with a fried vegetable spring roll, a sprinkling of peanuts, and more nuoc cham sauce. Whilst my pho was absolutely delicious, I couldn't help feeling a pang of #foodenvy when this was brought out, so I'm keen to experience one of the many bun noodle dishes for myself on my next visit.

Morning glory at Pho

The waitress recommended that we order a side of Rau Muong Xao Lai - stir fried morning glory with garlic. We were so glad that we followed her advice, as we both agreed this was probably the best vegetable we had ever eaten!

The water spinach was just on the right side of tender, and no matter how hard we tried we couldn't put our finger on what made the garlic sauce so indescribably delicious. Long after we had finished our noodles we were still dunking our chopsticks into the garlicky liquor with its deep, sweet umami notes - it's just as well my boyfriend wasn't home to suffer my breath afterwards!

Pandan pancake with icecream at Pho

Given that our dinner at Pho coincided with Shrove Tuesday, there was only one acceptable option for dessert - a pair of Pandan pancakes, filled with roasted coconut and served with icecream.

Icecream flavours are a serious business for me, so I was completely torn on which would taste better with my pancake; Honey and Ginger, or Coconut?! Thankfully our kind (and by this point, very patient!) waitress came to the rescue yet again, allowing us to each try a scoop of both versions. We were totally blown away by the quality of the icecreams (supplied by La Maison des Sorbets), and licked our plates clean! Despite loving the tropical coconut with its specks of crunchy nutty flesh, we were mesmirised by the outstanding combination of spicy crystallised ginger and sweet honeyed cream.

Coconut filling in Pho's pandan pancake

A green pancake might not appeal to the eyes, but the rest of my senses were delighted. The pandan flavour itself was very mild and seemed to be masked by the sweet coconut filling; the whole pudding was entirely appetising though, and an attractive Asian alternative to Shrove Tuesday's standard lemon and sugar crepe.

My sweet tooth had also been crying out to try the Chuoi Chien - banana fritters - which I believe have received rave reviews from other diners. So by the end of the evening I knew that it wouldn't be long before I returned to Pho; the quality of our food and the service had been fantastic, and let's face it, I had basically already chosen my next three-course meal from their extensive Vietnamese menu!

Pho Spitalfield


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