If I had to pick one word to describe the food in Vietnam, it would be “aromatic”. Take pho, for instance: the national dish of noodle soup, fragrant with long-simmered bone broth and the almost medicinal scent of star anise, black cardamom and cloves, with abundant herbs adding their own distinctive perfume.
Visit any of the cheap and cheerful Vietnamese cafés in Shoreditch or Hackney, however, and you will discover that most of the abundant greenery is iceberg lettuce. Even at one of the Vietnamese outlets in the new Bang Bang Oriental Foodhall, in Colindale, the summer rolls are bland and lettuce-padded, served with a sweet, gloopy peanut sauce.
Not that this should deter you from a trek to north London. Bang Bang is a great barn of a place, with 30 or so stalls, many run by familiar names in Asian food circles, and seating for 450. There is Four Seasons, with its peerless Cantonese-roasted pork and duck, brick-red and shimmering stickily; Royal China One 68, hawking its excellent dim sum (the Royal China Group owns the building); and representatives from Taiwan, Japan and Korea, among others. As a habitué of Bayswater’s Asian restaurants, I could not have felt more at home should someone have slung a few trestle tables along Queensway and given me a pair of chopsticks.
An outpost of Southwark restaurant Thai Silk offers an excellent pad kra pao moo (stir-fried minced pork flavoured with lemongrass and holy basil); Tibb’s Frankie, which has 400 outlets in India, uses Lebanese-style pitta bread to wrap spicy grilled meats; and Ramen Samurai Ryu turns out fine noodle soups, made with richly piggy broth: choose your own toppings. There is only a rudimentary bar; I would stick to beer or tea.
For Vietnamese cuisine, however, you might head to Go-Viet, former Hakkasan chef Jeff Tan’s new restaurant in South Kensington. His ambition is evident not just in the cool decor, the smart, friendly service and the well-chosen wine list, but in a little dish of bí mât (secret) tomatoes: the secret is that they are marinated in a broth made with 10 different Vietnamese leaves. Eating one is like brushing past a herb-laden Hanoi market stall.
Summer rolls are stuffed with mint, freshwater prawns, rice vermicelli, pickled carrot and a leaf or two of baby gem (not iceberg); even bigger wild prawns are threaded onto lemongrass skewers and scattered with crunchy fried lime leaves. And, of course, there is pho: I had pho chin, its estimable broth made with beef bones simmered for 16 hours with warm, woody spices, lending it a glorious depth of flavour. Topped with heavily marbled, slow-cooked brisket and strewn with fresh herbs, it was as good as any I have tasted in Vietnam.
Go-Viet has raised the bar for Vietnamese food in London, and I will return to try the rest of the menu: it is a little gem, and I suspect my lunch was just the tip of the iceberg.