VIETNAMESE ON THE MOUNTAIN
With the cold weather threatening to come back, I thought a little pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup, would hit the spot.
My dining companion and I jumped on the Linc, got off at Gage and headed toward Stone Church. A plaza sits there and toward the back, next to a yoga studio, is Mi Pho Song Vu.
My shoulders tensed up as we walked through the rain to the restaurant but I relaxed right away when we got in. Piano music, easy listening hits from the ‘80s and ‘90s.
The room was sleek and simple. We were led to a booth with a dark brown backing that played off the silver walls. Off-white tile floors had a subtle wood grain pattern, and a few hanging lights reminded me a bit of wooden pumpkins in shape. They hung over the bar, the front of which looked as if it was made of bamboo. It stood out as the singular visual hint of Asia in the room.
As tea was poured for us, we flipped through the menu. It was a small novella, with around 20 variations on every starch and soup. Appetizers, vermicelli (or vermicelli and udon), congee (a cooked rice porridge-like dish), rice, soups, pad Thai, pho and stir-fry. If you want to save time, look at the menu online before you go.
First, drinks. They had bottles of wine (Cave Springs Riesling, Robert Mondavi Sauvignon) along with beer: Molson, Bud, Corona and Heineken but we went for fruit drinks, choosing from 20 types of smoothies and 16 bubble teas.
I had a soursop milkshake. The soursop tasted like a mix of coconut, melon and papaya, subtle and compelling. My dining companion got the blueberry bubble tea, chewy dark tapioca sliding up the straw with every sip. It was milkier than I expected and, like the soursop, mild in flavour.
The piano music rolled on and our food rolled in.
The spring rolls arrived first, with a dipping sauce that appeared to be a nuoc cham, made with fresh lime juice, fish sauce, garlic and chilies. Like most of the food at Mi Pho, the dipping sauce leaned toward the Western palate. The fish sauce in it wasn’t prominent enough to serve as the backbone flavour typical of many traditional Vietnamese dishes. The spring rolls were crispy, and while the pork filling was not overly flavourful, the carrots came through nicely.
A lotus root salad came out next. Baby lotus tubes, about the size of penne, with the signature holes extending along the length of the vegetable. They tasted as if they were lightly pickled and the salad had a generous amount of shrimp, carrots and mint. Peanuts garnished the top of this healthy and cleantasting dish.
Along with the salad, we had rice noodles and grilled beef. A straightforward presentation with a nice dose of mint, and a tamarind sauce that was not overly complex.
The simplicity of the room was highlighted by the lack of pictures or decorative touches on the walls. This made the sound travel, though, and it was difficult not to overhear the table behind us talking about going into the fashion industry and what that might be like. Speak softly and carry a big stick.
Chopstick, that is. These were delivered as the mains made their way out. First came the pork dish, three ways (grilled, pork “stick” — a sweet sausage, and shredded pork skin), over vermicelli. I did my part by adding hoisin sauce, hot sauce and nuoc cham, and the dish was exactly what I expected.
The grilled pork was savoury and the pickled vegetables that came with it added zing, more sweet than acidic.
The grilled beef was simple but addictive. Marinated lightly, it had a deep flavour, with the grilling adding a layer of depth. This came with a mound of rice and pickled vegetables. Simple and tasty. The pho was far spicier than anything else we tried. My companion ordered the saté (Spicy Rare Beef Rice Noodle Beef Soup), and I couldn’t eat more than two bites at a time without watering eyes and burning lips signalling for me to stop. But through the spice, though, I could taste a nice, light soup base.
Mi Pho Song Vu: the relaxing piano music rolled on and our food rolled in.
The grilled beef had a deep and rich flavour.
This particular pho was spicier than expected, but had a nice broth.