Back in the day – and bear with my while I regress a decade or more – when Dalston wasn’t full of fashionistas or editors of glossy mags, there was a handful of authentic Vietnamese restaurants that served up proper regional grub aimed at the local community. My two favourite spots for fresh spring rolls, grilled meats and bowls of steaming pho (before pho became achingly hip) back then was Huong-Viet, a Vietnamese cultural centre just off the Kingsland Road, and Viet Grill – part of the Cay Tre family. At the cultural centre the loos were filthy, the staff abrupt, the tables sticky and the food mesmerising. Before Wagamama became a high street name, these guys were churning out food as and when it was ready. No philosophy, no apologies, it was just easier that way. Heaven forbid that they should be inconvenienced by paying customers. The centre would be packed all week with a strange mix of clientele: from smart Blairites who had dodged the bullets and snuck over the border from neighbouring Islington, to hippies from nearby Hackney squats. You sat where there was a space, brought your own wine (or full-strength lager), ate and went. As the years went by, the crowd changed, the loos were given a lick of paint, Vietnamese food became the new Thai and it just didn’t feel the same.
Viet Grill, the other original Hackney Vietnamese restaurant, was always a little bit slicker than the operation at the cultural centre – it was clear even then that the team behind Viet Grill on the Kingsland Road and Cay Tre in Hoxton had bigger ideas. So I wasn’t surprised when they opened a Soho branch. I just hoped that the increased rent and a prime West End location didn’t lead to them messing around with their menu or concept too much.
The Soho restaurant is beautiful – as it has to be in this part of town. Low-lit, dark woods, great lighting and sumptuous. It’s just a few doors down from the Groucho club and across the road from Dean Street Townhouse, so it has to be aesthetically pleasing to attract Soho’s media crowd. And that it does. Soho doesn’t care what day of the week it is, so on a Wednesday night in early Spring the place was jammed to the rafters with ironic haircuts, boys (and some girls) in their buttoned-all-the-way-up check shirts, and more pairs of brogues than a branch of Church’s.
As I waited for my guests, I supped on a Viet beer and perused the menu. There are some familiar dishes, thank goodness, but also some that are exclusive to the Soho eatery. The belly pork, resembling a well-done, crispy handbag (literally) which was proudly carried to our table for us to admire a little more closely, being one of them. As with the other Cay Tre restaurants, the staff are great – friendly, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and fun. The menu is easy to comprehend and you can mix, match, share, stuff yourself, snack, graze or linger for hours with beer and tapas-size portions.
One of the younger members of our party – a precocious 20-something media whore who seemed to have spent the last 30 years travelling through the Far East – was our authenticity checker. Appreciative nods and murmurs interrupted our low-brow conversation throughout the evening, and we stopped occasionally to listen as she told us that “this is just like a dish I had in blah-blah.” Meanwhile I attempted to order pretty much every dish from the menu – if it’s called a ‘Small Plate’ on the menu, my theory went that we needed lots of them. The fresh vegetable rolls brought memories of the early 90s in Hackney racing back – fresh tasting and packed with coriander, you could taste every single ingredient stuffed inside the rice paper wrapping. We could have drunk pints of the accompanying peanut sauce. The soft shell crabs doused in chilli salt and pepper melted in the mouth as they should and were dressed in a fine, crisp coating of tempura. The grilled calamari and okra was spiked with lemongrass and came with a poky, curry-enhanced sauce – it was the weakest dish of the night as the beautifully-fresh calamari, which had been perfectly cooked, was completely over-powered by onion and celery flavours. Another small plate arrived (did we really order this much?) – the Hanoi sweet potato shrimp fritter which turned out to be a fragrant little fishy, sweet nugget laced with Vietnamese herbs. Divine.
Then came the mains. Big, steaming, generous bowls and plates of aromatic grub. Stand-out dishes included the ox cheek au vin (above) – a hearty, meat-fest celebrating savoury flavours and infused with the warming spices of black cardamom and cinnamon. Slow-cooked to its most tender point, it was warming, homely (if you happen to live in Ho Chi Minh City) and unctuous (in a very good way). Another high point was the pork belly special (below): an enormous slab of the meat had been spiked and stuffed with aromatic curry leaves which flavoured the sweet, tender meat. The crackling on the outside needed a hammer or a strong pair of teeth and was dense and crunchy. Moist, but not too fatty, it showed that the chefs here have a deft handling of protein, herbs and spices. As we tucked in the general manager approached brandishing a mean-looking chilli sauce. With a couple of spice aficionados seated at the table, we took on the chilli sauce, ignoring his warnings. Yeah, yeah, it can’t be that hot. Good lord. I was taken back – yet again – this time to a hot night in Phuket where the liberal application of a hot sauce had almost brought on a heart attack in the humidity. Wonderful stuff.
After all that heat, we needed some sweet relief. As well as more beer. One of the desserts came from just down the road – excellent gelato courtesy of Gelupo. A clever pairing of culinary forces. We had a trio of ices between us, which included an excellent salted caramel ice. To keep our authenticity checker happy we also ordered two slithers of grilled, battered banana which came covered in sticky rice. Despite looking like it had come straight off a printed photo menu from the 70s, it tasted divine. Eyes closed eating. The sago with a salty-ish coconut sauce was a beautifully balanced pud.
So can it give as good as its neighbours? The likes of Duck Soup, Bocca di Lupo, Nopi and Spuntino having been playing around with Soho’s food offering of late. Soho was, for a long time, somewhere that fine dining rubbed shoulders with cheap dives (great food occasionally, dirt cheap and dirty always). Now restaurateurs have realised there’s money to be made in well-designed restaurants serving fairly-priced food – not cheap, but fair. Ish. Cay Tre’s small plates hover around the £6-8 mark, while mains come in at around £11. We ate really well and drank until our knees went wobbly for about £35-£40 a head. That’s not bad in the heart of the West End – especially when the food’s as flavoursome, fresh and carefully cooked as Cay Tre’s menu. We’ll be back. And next time it’s pho and cocktails all the way, washed down with a few fresh rolls and a hefty serving of pork belly.
Cay Tre, 42-43 Dean Street, London W1