Ah. ‘Chain’. The ‘c’ word.
After my unenthusiastic review of The Coconut Tree, a few took issue with my description of them as ‘a chain’ and all the dilution of aims and standards that often involves. They’re not materially different from our own Bar 44, they reasoned: a similar number of branches from small beginnings, still owned by the founders.
Initially, it stands up. But there are key differences.
Let’s overlook the idea that one is a small group which has expanded organically in its original area (Bar 44), branching out to one city (Bristol) which has always been a second home to the owners, and with an enviable record of excellence. A company which has a more scattergun geographical rationale to their expansion (Cardiff, Cheltenham… Oxford?) and which- crucially- as long ago as June 2018 was briefing on their investigating seven (named) locations in London, is exactly that- a chain hellbent on national coverage. That’s why the basic errors I found were particularly alarming- if you’re struggling to perfect things in your fifth branch, then the omens aren’t promising. By the time you get to branch 29, you might be doing for the food of Sri Lanka what Midsommar does for rural Swedish tourism.
All other things being equal, I would typically rather give my money and my influence- such as that may be- to boost a locally-owned independent. That’s what I’ve done here for a touch over six years now. It’s not some sub-Orwellian ‘chain bad, indie good’ chorus, but a recognition that big brands often have vast resources to get people traipsing through their doors, but can suffer from a dip in quality when they get too big, too soon and neglect the basics, ending up with a compromised service.
Because it’s never about ‘independent versus chain’: it’s about good versus indifferent.
So why did Pho excite me? The press bumf from the company, as they prepare to invite the usual suspects to try their latest branch in Cardiff, ticks many of the right boxes. It tells a tale of travellers entranced by the food they found, of a passion sparked and of a commitment to cooking fresh daily, rather than from some central kitchen. Not that that model is necessarily moribund- one of the most respected restaurant groups in Cardiff and beyond has been doing that for some time, with no discernible drop in standards.
So- would this be another damp squid (sic, after my old English teacher) a la TCT, or would it join its neighbours Mowgli and Honest Burger in making a good impression on the city?
So it’s good to be able to say that Pho has come out swinging and will feed you very nicely, thank you. I offer no comment on its authenticity, because (a) I’m not qualified to, and (b) there will always be someone who ‘knows this amazing little place, well off the tourist track, where they serve incredible home-cooked dishes for the equivalent of 3p, trust me, you have to be in the know to even find it, nothing in Britain will ever come close’. I have also not added all the accurate accents and inflections, though I saw WO has done that very thing, so if that’s your thing, feel free to check out their write up instead.
Over two invitation evenings, we investigate the menu at length. You’re welcome. It certainly looks the part, full of punchy high-definition flavours and well-considered textures.
Chicken wings (canh ga) arrive hot and salty and crisp- there’s a lot of fried food over the two evenings, but without ever feeling heavy- and with tangy sriracha on the side. It’s a good start, the sort of thing to get the engine running.
Cha gio pork spring rolls are lightly done- this is a cuisine in love with the pig, which will always appeal to the Spaniard in me- and lovely little things; but if you’re going for just one of the spring roll options, here’s a tip.
There are big spring rolls which seem precision-engineered to tickle you exactly where it counts, its delicate wrapper fried to a crisp and cosseting its payload of king prawns, pork and crab. No, seriously.
Anything which is on your mind the minute you awake the next day- the diarrhoea doner excluded- has to be worth eating. (Behave). These are the thing you’ll crave again as soon as you’ve finished. Just tell them ‘nem hai san‘ and thank me later. And no, I’m not going to say they are ‘Pho’nomenal’. There are other blogs for that caper.
How good are they? The second night, we order them again. Twice.
Squid comes palely battered, and although cut from different pieces of the body, and carefully cooked for the right texture (my eternally reliable barometer of a kitchen’s nous) it tastes bland, at first. Is this where it all comes tumbling down? Has Pho seduced me just to disappoint almost immediately?
Well, no. Because if you’re listening when they bring the stuff you’ll hear them advise you to swirl the provided chilli, salt and lime together and dredge the pieces through. And you’ll be glad you did: it springs into sharp focus now, coming alive with acidity and heat to become more than the sum of its parts, this muc chien gion.
Bo la lot beef in betel leaves is what happens when you’re patient and braise meat for hours, letting it get to know its aromatics.
Pork meatballs are delicately formed before they are coated and fried to a golden crisp. It could easily be too much of a good thing, the lemongrass perfuming the meat. It isn’t.
One of their pledges here is that they do things patiently and slowly when it comes to the stocks which form the basis of their pho noodle bowls. It’s time well spent, the pho bo nam trung a bowl of heartily beefy broth with noodles and enoki mushrooms, brisket and scallions. The meat has just started to dry out just a little by the time we get to it, but then we were distracted chatting to other guests and if you simply ordered, then planted your face in the stuff when it arrived- and who could blame you- then you’d face no such issue. It’s sustaining stuff. Another pho, this time fast-fried steak with garlic, is even better.
Chicken and prawn fried noodles? Where do I sign? It’s generously loaded, the tartness of the dipping sauce just the thing to balance the carb loading. We piled on the greens too, which lurk in the picture above. Stir-fried water spinach is the ‘morning glory’ you can tell the person next to you on the train about. It’s probably best you don’t offer to show them a picture, though.
Sugar snap peas with green beans could be a touch warmer a creamy peanut dressing, the textures are lovely with the peas living up to their name but it would be better served warmer, I think- the flavours would resonate even more strongly. It’s a minor detail, but easily remedied.
We try a couple of their com tam rice bowls, chargrilled chicken and pork the respective stars of a hefty serving. The balance of textures and temperatures is deftly handled here, with sweet and crisp veg and cooling cucumber helping out with rice which is sticky without getting claggy and meat which has been treated with some understanding.
A ca-ri is full of coconut and warmth: layered spicing which isn’t overpowering is tempered by the creamy sauce and presents its prawns as meaty but with plenty of bounce.
These visits were at invitation preview evenings, which means it’s all gratis. Every seat is taken and the kitchen is working flat out to feed us cosseted, eyes-bigger-than-belly parasites. Service is bouncy, personable, well-informed and capable (we try to play ‘spot the ringer parachuted in from another branch to ease any initial issues’ and get most wrong, which is a compliment. They are clearly on a charm offensive.
But somehow it’s hard to imagine that things will drop off after this initial period: you get the sense of a company which has the basics down to an art by now. After all- they are cooking to this level at this, their 29th branch, and are providing a lesson in how to do the ‘chain’ idea well, without diluting their food.
It opened Saturday, and I’d be surprised if anyone left Pho completely immune to its charms. And if that’s your interest piqued, the soft launch (50% off food) is still on until Tuesday 24/9/19.
But even beyond that- this is a keeper, and strongly recommended.
5–10 Church Street,
tel:02922 690 020
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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.