Patricia and Dennis Cleveland-Peck journey to Brighton to experience Vietnam’s delicious street food
Phớ was completely unknown to us but we are always delighted to try something new and this traditional Vietnamese noodle dish is credited with being not only delicious but very healthy. At the Pho restaurants, of which there are now branches in London, Brighton and Leeds, the vast majority of the menu is egg and dairy free as well as being made from ingredients which contain no gluten. The dishes are low in fat and contain 10 vitamins and minerals which help to combat fatigue, further the nutritional values of every dish are available on the website.
These restaurants are part of the trend (which includes the Giggling Squid chain of Thai restaurants) whereby oriental cuisine is brought to us by western enthusiasts. Stephen and Juilette Ward opened the first Pho in Clerkenwell in 2005 after travelling to Vietnam and falling in love with the food. In their British restaurants however, they employ Vietnamese chefs who prepare the dishes with complete authenticity, cooking entirely on site from fresh ingredients delivered daily.
We entered the big restaurant and were warmly welcomed. It is a large, well-appointed modern-looking room with some long benches at which parties of people were eating together but there were also plenty of smaller tables. The clientele was pleasantly mixed, as it was Brighton there were plenty of students and young people but also couples, older folk out for the day and families with children for whom the theatre of it all was proving great fun. (We made a mental note to bring our granddaughter.) In fact the atmosphere was very lively and everyone seemed to be enjoying the experience. Dennis being an ex-chef, was further delighted to see the impeccably clean open kitchen and watch the brigade of Vietnamese chefs busily working together in perfect harmony.
There were a number of tables outside where one could benefit from the sunshine and sea-air (the beach is at the bottom of the road) but we compromised with a window seat and very soon menus were provided and explanations and help were offered.
Phớ (pronounced fuh, which really refers to the noodles) is the Vietnamese national dish, ‘an aromatic nutritious and delicious rice noodle soup which is served with a side plate of fresh herbs to add as you please.’ This tasty meal is apparently a favourite breakfast dish in Vietnam where the early-rising population pick up a bowlful from street-side stalls to set them up for the day.
It was lunch time for us though, and we felt hungry. We wondered if we’d know what to choose but the menu was straightforward with good descriptions of the dishes in English alongside the Vietnamese names. As well as the noodle soups there were salads, side dishes, fried noodles and dishes featuring ‘broken’ rice. There was also a comprehensive drinks menu from which we chose a white Gavi (although beer is the traditional accompaniment) which we sipped while making our selection and enjoyed throughout the meal.
Five starters were on offer. Patricia chose Gơi cuõn; rice paper rolls (looking a bit like sushi) served cold with prawns, vermicelli and pickles which came with a tasty peanut dipping sauce. They were incredibly fresh and vibrant. Dennis opted for Nem hải sản, a large crispy spring roll with tiger prawn, crab and pork and a fishy dipping sauce. This too, he also found a perfect prelude to the main course.
There are a dozen different types of Phớ : with brisket, thinly sliced steak, flash fried steak with garlic, beef meatballs (or a combination of all three), chicken breasts, tiger prawns, tofu and button mushrooms, enoki, shitake and button mushrooms.
There is also Bún riêu, a Hanoi classic and this was Patricia’s choice. It consisted of noodles in a rich crab and tomato broth with wafer thin pieces of steak, pieces of crab pancake and tofu with a topping of fried shallots. It was absolutely delicious as was Dennis’s selection of the house special, dặc biêt which contained flat noodles, tiger prawns, tofu with garlic in a beef stock.
Before tucking in, a word about how to eat Phớ – it comes with a pair of chopsticks and a big spoon and the art is to wind the noodles round the chopsticks using the spoon as a base, rather as one does with spaghetti. It is however, acceptable to slurp and use any method available to get it all into one’s mouth. We were pleased to find that bibs are provided, in our case necessary and something we hadn’t encountered since eating in the lobster shacks of New England.
Before one does any noodle-slurping, however, it is important to sample the broth on its own. Good broth is the absolute key to Phớ and should pack a punch of complex flavours. The quality depends on the long simmering of the meats and bones and the right balance of spices and aromatics. At Pho the stock takes 12 hours to prepare and is crystal clear and full of flavour. Somewhere within ours were tiny specks of scarlet chilli which delivered a hit that got even Dennis, a hardened chilli man, gasping.
Vietnamese food is all about adapting the food to one’s own personal taste, so next came a separate serving of uncooked herbs and vegetables which included coriander, Thai basil, mint, parsley and finely chopped salad leaves or cabbage. These we learned, should be ripped up and sprinkled on the soup bit by bit rather than being submerged in order to release flavour and add another dimension.
Lastly, on the table were the special condiments; soy sauce, chilli sauce for an extra kick, fish sauce for saltiness and garlic vinegar for sourness. Well, we didn’t really feel our dishes needed anything extra but true Phớ aficionados swear by customising their dishes with these so we tried a dab of each ( except the chilli) in the interest of research. Later though, we read that condiments ‘should not be a default’ – the best Phớ doesn’t need them. So bravo Pho!
Our main courses were simply lovely – puddings weren’t really necessary but in the interest of research once again, we squeezed in one delicious pandan pancake with roasted coconut and ice cream between us. All in all, our meal at Pho Brighton was an interesting, exciting, and delicious gastronomic experience. We’ll be back.
12 Black Lion Street
Brighton BN1 1ND