It starts well enough. I’m anyone’s for a good prawn cracker and I’m brought a complimentary bowl of prawn crackers, a nice touch. They don’t last long. More arrive: I do love it when someone tops up my crackers. Matron.
King prawn with lemongrass are not ready yet this lunchtime, so I order strategically: I go for my favourite orders at the nationwide chain Pho and get ready for something vibrant.
Chicken wings are strangely underpowered. Good texture, disappointing flavour: enjoyably crisp, yet oddly muted. Perhaps things will improve with another favourite.
When I order spring rolls, I’m asked if I prefer the seafood or vegetable version, though it’s unclear that is an option from the menu. We’ll come back to that. What should be a sweet surf and turf combination of pork and shellfish is, again, dialled down: and worse, the cooking oil was clearly under-temperature so it has leached into the casing and mean they leak cooling grease. It’s a shame. Again.
Grilled quail with mango salad- chim cút nuróng– have been marinated and grilled in a rugged paste which takes the handbrake off: this is much more enouraging. It’s a light starter, but an interesting one.
The usual follow-up visit a couple of weeks later. There are no prawn crackers- a cost-cutting move? A post-opening tweak? Who knows?- and a chance to take a closer look. The same spring rolls are ordered: they look very different and are far better done this time. The balance of filling is better, with that touch of sweetness far more detectable this time, and the coating less oily.
It’s the stir-fried goat (Dê xào sả ớt) which intrigues. The meat’s decently cooked, making for an aromatic bowl punchy with lemongrass and chilli. We’ll come back to this one.
And then the duck arrives, and it is quite excellent, the skin skilfully presented as just a whisper-light suggestion of crispness. Roll your eyes all you want but it’s better rendered here (and they said fat jokes were frowned on in 2022) than the one I had in a venerated Welsh Michelin star fixture a few years ago. Which sounds an extravagant claim: and to be fair that was an insultingly cackhanded piece of cookery, but it’s still a sincere compliment.
This is a quite superb way to treat piece of meat. It’s one of those dilemma plates, where you want to keep every last scrap of something remarkably good for yourself, but you feel you should share it so your friend gets to realise just how special this is.
And it’s flashes like this which make this place frustrating. Chicken ca-ri has its issues too: that coconut-based sauce it should be thick and creamily indulgent, not thin, with none of the vibrant colour or richness you’d expect. Overall, a little disappointing in flavour and consistency.
Talking of consistency, the name on the signs outside adds an ‘e’ (‘Vietname’) absent on all other media, social and printed.
There are other niggles for the alert observer.
If you’re a vegetarian you’ll have to- in a manner of speaking- pick the bones out of the Little Vietnam menu. The ‘vegetables’ section lists them as adjuncts to flesh. It needs to be far clearer what vegetarians and vegans can eat here- it features chicken feet Mushrooms or Pak choi stir fried with beef or pork, or lots root salad with chicken or duck. There are tofu curries.
The menu needs a rewrite. Urgently. It’s oddly structured. I’d usually leap at the chance to have clams or snails: but I didn’t order them because they are in the desserts section. Battered shrimp and sweet jelly make uneasy bedfellows.
That goat starter? At £14.50 it’s the most expensive dish on the menu. (No main breaks the £13 barrier.) That, despite being billed as a starter. It’s also capably mains-sized. It should be smaller and under £10, for example. Or, even better, a main course. Although service us personable, we feel rushed into ordering quickly, despite the place being a third full: yet our finished plates sit in front of us for 20-odd minutes.
There are flashes of good things here. That duck was the equal of any I’ve had in the city for many years. But once again, it proves the one visit ‘hot take’ can be suspect, and at worst, unrepresentative and misleading. If I had written on the basis of that first visit, I would have struggled to find much to recommend. On the second, things were better but issues remain.
On balance, Little Vietnam has real promise, but there’s work to be done to establish consistency from the kitchen and a house style of service. If they can get that right, we’ll have something to enjoy in Roath. But it’s far too early to make that call now.
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This blog is a very simple thing.
I won’t try to sell you any hand lotion, exercise programmes, coffee syrups or Patagonian nose flutes. You won’t find tips on dating, ‘wellness’ or yoga mats.
I write because I love it (and food, as indicated by my increasing girth). Greed happens to be my Deadly Sin of choice, but at least it is never shy of providing me with subject matter.
A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
From mezze to Michelin ‘fine dining’ and all points in between.