Cafe East

Nestled in a concrete jungle, or should I say the Surrey Quays super bowl and bingo car park, you’ll find a place called Cafe Pho – guilty of serving up some of the best Vietnamese food I’ve had in London.

I won’t moan about the odd location or fact that it’s a mission for 99.99% of people to get to, because quite conveniently for me, it’s not. In fact I think part of the reason why Cafe East has managed to remain so true to its roots since relocating from a smaller outfit in Deptford is because it’s tucked away from the masses. The food is so good they can get away with the authentic low-key, no frills approach – no tap water, no reservations, cash only, sans alcohol, “if you don’t like it you can go f@!# yourself!” – you get the idea?  This restaurant is not the kind of place to go to if you want to mess with the menu, or, dare I say it, ask for anything vegetarian – it is what it is, try to amend and things will only get messy!  However stick with the status quo, and you will be immensely rewarded.

The menu is fairly small – show casing 5 or 6 starters, and 15 or so mains which are centred around Pho (of course!), Bun (rice vermicelli noodles) and Com (rice dishes). The portion sizes are generous, especially the starters, so be careful not to go overboard on these (one starter is usually plenty for 2 people).  Do try the bean drinks, they are especially good here.

Cafe East Bahn Cuon

Bahn Cuon

Huge portion of Bahn Cuon, these rice paper rolls are stuffed with pork and mushrooms and then steamed. Topped with vietnamese sausage, fresh bean sprouts and fried shallots and dressed with a slightly spicy fish sauce, these are very morish indeed and I never forget to order them.

Pho Tai Chin

Cafe East Pho Herbs

Pho Herbs & Sprouts

The Pho are delicious – choose from beef (two ways), chicken, prawns or a mixture of all three. Being a creature of habit, I tend to avoid any notions of food envy by going for Pho Tai Chin, which is a mixture of thin slices of lean raw beef that cook in the broth, and slow cooked brisket, richly marbled and tender. The broth is excellent, full of meaty depth and aromatics such as star anise.  A deeply soothing meal if ever there was one. The rice noodles are always well cooked, soft and bouncey, and the accompanying vietnamese herbs and beansprouts generous. There’s nothing worse than being on the receiving end of a few measely scraps of herbs and soggy beansprouts, as these are in my opinion essential to any good Pho and bring the dish to life. I’ve yet to find a better Pho in London, (possibly) surpassed only by Uyen Luu’s Beef Pho which I’ve tried a couple of times at her cookery class and other events.

For me, the Pho is the stand out dish at Cafe East, but if you’re not a big fan of soup, the Bun are pretty tasty too.

Bun Bo Xao

Bun Bo Xao

These fine vermicelli noodles are topped with pickled vegetables, sprouts and nuts and accompanied by the signature fish sauce dressing. You can choose from a variety of meat toppings, pictured above is Bun Bo Xao which is stir-fried chunks of beef. I can never quite bring myself to order these in place of the Pho (I love my broth too much), but I can imagine this would be a welcome alternative on a really hot summers day.

Now I can’t claim to have tried all the Vietnamese restaurants in London, but I have had my fair share of Kingsland road mishaps, and as a result have almost neglected going there in recent years because it’s always disappointing. If you take note of the other customers in Cafe East at any one time, you’ll notice that the majority are asian. I really like that, a big fat seal of approval to have the restaurant full of Vietnamese and other Pho-craving asians. You know you’re getting the real deal, and the standard of food will not be compromised.

Check out Cafe East’s new website for a glimpse of their menu and prices, or directions should you happen to get lost in the ‘Leisure Park’. Try it, you won’t be disappointed.

Thit Heo Kho Trung (Braised Pork Belly in Pear Cider, Coconut Juice & Egg)

A comforting and indulgent Vietnamese dish, often cooked at New Year.  Traditionally kept on the stove top and reheated twice a day (add a little water if need to stop it being too salty). Recipe courtesy of Uyen Leluu.

Ingredients (serves 4)                                                                  

500g pork belly, chopped into inch or less cubes
5 shallots or 1 medium onion
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
pinch black pepper
4 birds eye chillis, deseeded and finely chopped
1/2 bottle pear cider
1 can coconut juice
150ml coconut milk – optional (to thicken and make creamy)
12 quail eggs and/or 4 hen eggs
1 tbs coconut caramel
Three Crabs fish sauce to taste
pinch black pepper

Method

Remove the rind from the pork but leave some fatty bits.  Marinade in the blended shallots or onions, garlic, chilli and fish sauce.  Leave for at least half an hour.

Sweat off the shallots, add the meat to brown off, then pour in the pear cider and coconut juice.  Bring to a gentle boil.  Remove scum, cook on simmer.  Season with Three Crabs Fish Sauce to taste.

Meanwhile hard boil and peel eggs.  Add to the pot and simmer for at least 2 hours (4 is better).  If you want a creamy texture and taste, add coconut milk.  Make sure you have a good balance of sweet and savoury, add some black pepper and the coconut caramel for colouring.

Serve with steamed rice.  Also nice with a fried egg.

A Vietnamese Cookery Course with Uyen Lelu

Bought as a surprise for a friend’s birthday and not one to miss out on learning how to cook different types of cuisine, I thought it only fair to take myself along as well.  I’ve heard a lot of good stuff about Lelu – not just the cookery course she runs but her supper club adventures and recent encounters with Jamie Oliver in his quest to discover missionaries of Vietnamese food in Britain.

The course is held a couple of times a month from her home in London Fields for 6 or 7 guests at a suggested donation of £75 per person, a very humble amount I thought.

After a disastrous journey taking over 2 hours to get from Brixton to London Fields with the shoddy Sunday tube service, I arrived fashionably late, but thankfully just in time for a steaming bowl of Beef Pho.  Whilst tucking into the Pho I had a chance to introduce myself to the other guests and absorb my surroundings.  As expected there were a mixture of guests, some with Vietnamese heritage looking to recreate dishes they were already familiar with, others with less experience but a vested interest nonetheless.

Uyen took time to explain the fundamentals of Vietnamese cuisine, balancing yin and yang or hot and cold for overall well-being and health.  This doesn’t just refer to the temperature or spiciness of a particular food, each type of food has a particular characteristic and can be blended together to provide the optimum balance or used to redress an imbalance when you’re feeling low or have over indulged.  This leads onto the freshness and vibrancy of Vietnamese food, abundant with fragrant herbs – I never feel overly full when I’ve eaten Vietnamese food yet the flavours are strong and satisfying.

There is plenty of participation in the dishes that are made, we all mucked in to make the Saigon Summer Rolls and Bo La Lot, and Uyen’s mother frequently came to the table to give us a closer look at the various dressings for the salad and fish dishes.  It is important to get the balance of sweet, sour and salty just right, tasting as you go and adjusting as necessary.

We break for a trip to the conveniently located Vietnamese/Asian supermarket near Uyen’s house and are shown some of the key ingredients – Three Crabs Fish Sauce, Rice Paper, La Lot leaves and the best Instant Pho stock cubes for when you don’t have time to make that delicious broth from scratch.  Time even for a pint at the local before we head back for the second half of the day and commence the remaining dishes.

We were given a ‘goodie bag’ at the end of the day – containing some of the leftovers that we had prepared, some fresh ho fun noodles and a large bottle of the holy grail Beef Pho stock which I devoured within a couple of days.

All in all, I was very pleased with the course, we covered a lot in one day and I left understanding the essence of balancing sweetness, saltiness and sourness.  There are no print outs of the recipes but they are captured on Lelu’s website (see blogroll for link) so this really wasn’t necessary.

Saigon Summer Rolls – I’ve made these many times before with lots of different ingredients.  They always impress and are so quick to make, although I did learn a few tips for presentation by arranging the mint leaves on the underside before rolling and allowing a strand or two of chinese chive to peek out the end.  Served with a spicy hoisin and peanut sauce.

The Chicken Salad was really zingy and fresh (the recipe on Lelu’s website uses Prawn instead which I imagine works equally well).  Julienned carrots, sharp unripened green mango, shallots, hot mint, chilli and banana blossom are mixed together thoroughly (to break down the texture of the raw carrots and onion a little) and dressed with a mixture of cider vinegar, fish sauce, soy, sugar, garlic chilli and peanuts.  This was the first time I had tried banana blossom (or at least was aware of what is was) and it didn’t taste of much but added a nice slightly crunchy texture and was good for absorbing the dressing.  The salad was served with crunchy Vietnamese Prawn Crackers which had a slight chilli kick to them.

For me the highlight of the day was definitely Thit Heo Kho Trung (Braised Pork Belly in Pear Cider and Coconut Juice).  This reminded me of a dish my mother makes with plump shitake mushrooms rather than eggs, spiced with ginger and star anise and slow cooked for several hours.  The eggs in this dish, a mixture of hen and quail, take on a different texture when slow cooked with the yolks becoming smooth and buttery. Uyen explained that traditionally this dish (before the days of fridges) would be left on the stove and reheated twice a day to kill any bacteria.  I made it about a week after the course and whilst I did keep it in the fridge, it tasted even better after a day or so and not a single drop of that deliciously rich sauce was wasted.

I’ve cooked whole fish many times before but in a more Chinese style, with soy, ginger and spring onions.  I really enjoyed the freshness of the green mango and chilli that accompanied the fried Brill, and the steamed Trout was a tasty reminder of a fish I overlook too often these days.

To cleanse the palate we finished up with a traditional Tofu and Watercress soup.  The recipe for this isn’t on the website although I’m sure it consists solely of a light chicken or vegetable stock, with chunks of silken tofu and finished with watercress just before serving.

VerdictThumbs Up.  Really good value for money, this course is a relaxed and informal introduction to some of the basics of Vietnamese cuisine.  The goodie bags to take home are an additional treat, especially given the quantity of food on offer throughout the day.  If you book be sure to skip breakfast!