Monday, 27 June 2011

Restaurant review: Cafe East

"I chanced my arm by ordering the Che Ba Mau; a Vietnamese concoction of kidney beans, coconut milk and green jelly served over ice..for the novel experience of a drink which was half jelly and ice cream and half burrito filling, it was certainly worth the £3.50..."

On the face of it, the decision to open a Vietnamese restaurant in a former pub on the edge of a rather unlovely cinema / bowling / bingo leisure complex in south-east London is an odd one. Having previously lived in this area for a few months, I remember it as a real gastronomic desert, unless Frankie and Benny’s, Pizza Hut or KFC are your thing (and they weren’t mine). However, this is the relatively new location of Café East, which had apparently developed a bit of a following in a much smaller set-up down the road in Deptford. And as with all of us, success brings with it a desire to escape the urban grime for more salubrious surroundings, leisure complex or no leisure complex.

But, as it happens, I have a real thing for most of the food of south-east Asia, it is simple and invigorating, and in many ways antithesis of the complex, over-wrought food you find in lots of London’s restaurants. The balance of hot, sour, salty and sweet flavours are more likely to give you a kick up the backside than send you to sleep. Therefore, attracted by mutterings of top class pho on the foodie grapevine, it seemed the ideal time to return to my old stamping ground, to see what had become of the place and enjoy bowls of steaming noodles and slippery summer rolls.

 It seems to be something of a truism that if you find an eatery where they serve food from parts unknown and it is full of exiles, then it must be serving top-notch grub. I’m not sure that this holds true though, as by the same measure those dodgy all day breakfast joints you find on the Costa del Sol, where everyone is horribly sunburnt and watching repeats of Only Fools and Horses, would be the place for Spaniards in search of an English. However, in this case, I took the fact that we were surrounded by (what I assumed to be) Vietnamese ex-pats as a positive sign.

Inside, the décor is of the no-frills school of design. The whitewashed walls, cheap wooden tables and chairs, and youthful audience reminded me of my university dining hall. Just without the scary dinner ladies and choice of brown or grey when it came to your Sunday roast.   

The menu is relatively short, with six starters on offer, followed by a choice of noodles or rice in various guises. First though a word on the drinks, as they don’t serve or allow you to bring alcohol. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as I chanced my arm by ordering the Che Ba Mau; a renowned Vietnamese concoction of kidney beans, coconut milk and green jelly served over ice. It was, in the end, a bit too sweet for my tastes and I struggled to finish after the first few mouthfuls. But, for the novel experience of a drink which was half jelly and ice cream and half burrito filling, it was certainly worth the £3.50.

To start then it was Banh Cuon, steamed rice rolls with a minced pork stuffing and the Goi Cuon, summer rolls with prawn, pork and rice noodles. One of the most appealing aspects of the Vietnamese cooking I have come across, is the generous use of herbs and other greenery, and the big plate of mint, holy basil, lettuce and dipping sauce which arrived with the starters demonstrated that very well. The greedy girlfriend and I were impressed with both the dishes, the only bum note being the Vietnamese meat loaf which came with the Banh Cuon. Most of the surrounding tables had ordered this, so I assume it is a very popular dish, but I found the pappy texture and grey colour to be slightly reminiscent of those Sunday roasts at university.

Onwards therefore to the main event. Having already heard that the pho is one of the best in London, the choice was whittled down to Pho Tai; beef broth accompanied by slices of rare beef and rice noodles. If you have ever seen a recipe for pho you will know that its foundation is a deeply savoury and well flavoured beef stock. In this case although still very good, it didn’t have quite the depth I had expected, and, dare I say it, reminded me slightly of a mug of Bovril. Although whether that it is a criticism or an endorsement I’m not so sure. Unfortunately it arrived only a couple of minutes after our starters, and instead of tucking in straight away as perhaps I should have done, I left it to cool. So by the time I dived in the rare beef was no longer quite so rare. You could say that my high expectations of the pho weren’t quite met, but it was certainly one of the best I have had, and eclipsed a similar one from Mien Tay in Shoreditch a few weeks previously.

On the other side of the table, VD, who is the least decisive person I have ever met when it comes to choosing from a menu, had found her dream, a dish which combined chicken, prawns and beef. Her Pho Ko Dac Biet, consisted of rice noodles, with the assorted meats and a bowl of the beef stock on the side. Very good it was too, in a moist, fragrant, herby type of way.

Too full for anything else, we were left pondering that key question you ask when leaving any restaurant: would I go back there and spend more of my hard earned cash? Despite any of the criticisms, the answer in this case, is a yes. We escaped, well fed, for £15 a head, which in a city like London is not to be ignored. If I were still a Surrey Quays local it would become a regular hang out, which from a tight Yorkshireman is praise indeed.


Cafe East, 100 Redriff Road, Surrey Quays, London, SE16 7LH
020 7252 1212
Open Lunch and Dinner: Monday, Wednesday-Sunday

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a good cheap option if you're in the area. Not sure about the Che Ba Mau though - sounds like the kind of dodgy hangover cure that could go horribly wrong! :-)