Vietnamese Delicious early promise descends into the ordinary in a meal of two halves
WE’RE elbow to elbow, cheek to cheek, squeezed into a table that we nearly didn’t get – as I forgot which name I booked under. Please tell me you did book, Leo had texted from the restaurant as the waiter was on the brink of showing him the door.
By the time Gordon and I roll off Glasgow’s Great Western Road into a wave of noise and exotic smells, waiters breathing in to get past tables, food being carried over sitting heads, the crisis is over. Yes, I remembered the name. Yes, Leo has a table beside the front door. And, yes, they really are so busy on a midweek night that we would not have got in without that booking.
Within minutes we’re caught up in an old-school menu ritual. It goes like this. I call out the dish we fancy, the waiter replies with the number. Shaking beef? Number 8. Rice paper rolls? Number 2B. Salt and pepper squid? Number 10B. And so it proceeds until we end with the sizzling seafood. Number 15, since you ask. And we nod when offered prawn crackers. They’ll come with their own number. Number £2, but we won’t realise that until we get the bill.
If Vietnamese is the new Chinese in Glasgow then freshness is the new fried. The meal sets off a crackling pace with summer rolls of soft rice paper, vermicelli, fresh basil and coriander, punchy chilli, fish sauce and lime sauce, and slivers of beef. Light, refreshing, yet unctuous.
And then we’re onto pork rolls, crispy this time, packed with rich meat, mint leaves served alongside, and another sweetly savoury traditional dipping sauce. This is food taken at a canter.
We chat, we nod at particular flavours, hands criss-crossing across the table to lift food and now the shaking beef arrives.
If there’s ever an example needed of the benefits of a long, slow marinade, this is it. The meat is crisp, seared, carmelised on the outside after a fast toss round a hot wok, but inside it’s supremely delicate after that soak in soy and garlic and probably some sherry.
This may be a mainstream dish in Vietnamese restaurants in the US, though apparently not cooked much in homes in Vietnam, but when done well, as it is here, it’s a revelation. Chunk after chunk disappears before we turn our attention to Indochine beef, this time containing slivers of sirloin. Tossed in a lemon dressing, shallots, chilli, coriander binding the whole thing together into a smooth textured and, to me anyway, delicious dish. Not so enthusiastic thumbs up from others around the table.
If we press pause on the meal right now, pay up and leave, it would still have been a light, refreshing triumph. We don’t. We press on through a fairly ordinary salt and pepper squid with little to differentiate it from the same dish available at restaurants up and down this very city tonight.