I’ve known of the existence of Viet Kitchen in Chelmsford for a good while. It is the sister restaurant to Viet Kitchen in Colchester, which was not an entirely happy experience for me in service at least, but more to the point it’s over the road from my dentist and a short hop from Chelmsford station. Tell the truth, my last homemade Vietnamese experience at Mien Tay was a total winner (see here), so a repeat of that experience would have been a thrill.
Another trip was justified to see if the Colchester experience was just an off-night, and the chance came because I had an hour to kill between commuting back from Kent and the start of rehearsals at the Old Court Theatre another short drive beyond. In the current production, I play Inspector Thomas, but it is with a different inspector’s hat that I went for a brief solo meal at VK – and therefore this will be a similarly brief review.
This premises used to be occupied by a Thai restaurant, and retains the pleasant and modern ambience in an older building. Nothing particularly exceptional about the design or accoutrements, but they are appropriate and at least don’t demand lugging oneself up a steep and narrow staircase, unlike the Colchester branch.
This being a relatively quiet early evening, service was restricted to one waitress, whose English did not sit too easily on my ear but sufficient mutual understanding was established that I could order easily enough.
The menu is identical to Colchester, which makes it pretty much identikit Vietnamese without pushing too many boundaries – perhaps Essex folk are not ready for the really edgy Vietnamese experience, though it was good to see dishes that probably have their roots in home-cooked dishes that mama used to make. Among these are deep-fried tilapia and catfish, which after a hugely successful deep fried bream at Mien Tay was a welcome reminder.
On this occasion I chose from the simplest end of dishes available: beef coconut curry, coconut rice and Jasmine tea. Nothing complicated but then restaurants should be able to churn out simpler dishes with no less care and attention than given to the sophisticated house specialties. Had there been something akin to a Vietnamese equivalent to Pad Thai I might have tried it, but rice noodles would have been just that – rice noodles, nothing more.
The curry was served in a rather attractive stoneware hotpot, which as a rough alternative to sizzler plates and other ceramic serving dishes was welcome. In the absence of a dinner plate it proved difficult to eat rice and thin curry in perfect union, unless you poured a helping of rice into the sauce bowl and used the ceramic spoon for transfer to the mouth. It not being sticky rice, use of chopsticks would have defeated most, and since the rice was not served in a bowl either you could not try the usual trick of putting bowl to mouth and scooping rice in.
Dining logistics apart, the dish was interesting and resisted brown gloop syndrome. If anything, it tasted closer to a Japanese curry sauce with added coconut, chilli and other garnishes. Within its depths, thin slices of beef were to be found, mingling with onion and unexpected hunks of fried then braised potato. Not a great dish but one that within the compass of most oriental restaurants and in its own way satisfying.
As to whether Viet Kitchen can match other establishments, it would be good to see them taking more risks and tantalising our tastebuds. Essex or not, I can’t help feeling VK plays things just a little too safe.