It all started with a double-take as I was sitting at Rasa Sayang (Malaysia) in London Chinatown near my flat. I glanced out the window – what? A new Vietnamese restaurant in Central London? Done.
Central London is a virtual Vietnamese-food wasteland. Just a handful of restaurants and most of them marred by lack of competition and the desire to cater to unschooled palates. Banh hoi? Bo 7 mon? Mam nem? Don’t even ask.
Eternal optimist that I am, however, I was still hopeful about this new entrant.
Cam Phat is nestled on a side street in Chinatown, surrounded by Chinese shops offering variants on roast duck and dim sum. It looks strangely new from the green outside signage, in comparison to its neighbors. According to the waitress, however, it’s under the same ownership as the previous Chinese tenant, Laughing Buddha.
Its vast Chinese-Vietnamese fusion menu (link) reveals its roots. I eschewed the Chinese-influenced dishes and opted for the more quintessentially Vietnamese plates: goi cuon (summer rolls), banh cuon (folded rice sheets stuffed with pork), and the mixed meat pho (beef noodle soup).
Victory. These are probably the best summer rolls I’ve had in Central London (though keep in mind the bar is low here). The key to great goi cuon is freshness and timing. The rice paper stiffens up as the water evaporates, leaving a relatively brief window when it is both dry and soft. These were fresh. Wrapped in stretchy translucent rice paper, stuffed with delicate prawns, lettuce and vermicelli noodles, with the classic long green onion, I devoured them with relish. A bit smaller than I’m used to, but I can deal with that. The dark peanut dipping sauce was too sweet and dense for my taste but reasonable. The sliced red peppers in the sauce are a nice touch if you like spicy food as I do.
This might be the only place in all of Central London that makes banh cuon - I haven’t seen it elsewhere anyway. So I mentally clicked my heels when I saw it on the menu. The cut-to-the-chase verdict: not bad. Strong presentation, the slices of Vietnamese pork meat fanned out next to glistening rice-sheet folds encasing crumbled pork visible through thin sheets. A scattering of fried shallots on top offer a nice crunchy texture to counterbalance the softness of the rice-flour sheets. The nuoc mam, or fragrant fish sauce, was fine and served in a bowl on the side, to be ladled on top of the banh cuon. The banh cuon was clearly not made fresh but that’s hard to get unless you’re in a specialty banh cuon shop with scale. More pork inside the banh cuon would have been nice. I also like my banh cuon served warmer than it was delivered to the table, since it cools down slightly when you splash fish sauce on it anyway, but perhaps I’m being nitpicky. All in all, not bad if you’ve got a hankering in Chinatown.
The pho was my least favorite of the three dishes. It was edible but I can’t say much more than that. The broth was muddy-looking and not especially flavorful, which is the crux of my complaint. For pho lovers, the savoury broth is everything. It should be made from scratch and beef bones simmered from the wee hours of the morning and clarified until the broth is rich, clear and deeply satisfying. This broth was not. The “mixed meat” was not impressive, either. No tripe? No tendon? No brisket? The style is North Vietnamese, which is less fancified than pho from the South, but still I say blah. The vegetables were also skimpy, as you can see from the picture. The wide slippery noodles were fine though I personally prefer the thinner South Vietnamese rice noodles. Easier to get ahold of – my chopstick technique is not fantastic. Anyway, I gussied it up with bright-red sriracha chili and hoisin sauce, which made it at least edible. I probably wouldn’t get this dish again here though, even if I had a pho craving and was in the neighborhood. Viet on Greek Street is nearby and slightly better, though not optimal either.
All in all, I’d come back but would try a different dish than the pho. And now we return to our regularly scheduled program.