A while back I shared a really excellent Vietnamese meal at Cây Tre Soho, a meal which reinforced the presence of Vietnam and Cambodia on my bucket list of places to visit. The previous Vietnamese meal I’d eaten was in Vancouver with my children, so the ambition of eating Vietnamese in Vietnam is not so far distant. However, on this occasion I had to make do with the Colchester branch of Viet Kitchen, a very small chain that proudly professes itself to be the only Vietnamese in East Anglia – which for these purposes extends as far south as Chelmsford.
The menu has plenty of interest to it, including two exotic fish in the form of whole tilapia and catfish – neither of which will turn up in your nets in the Thames estuary. Quite a few well-known Vietnamese specialties make the cut, all including the original Vietnamese language, of which speakers are presumably limited in Essex.
For example, Pho is a wonderful dish of rice noodles in broth, plus, in this case, prawns, squid and tofu, though I’ve had it in the past with beef that poached in the liquid. Wherever you eat your Vietnamese food, pho is assuredly always on the menu, but then typically are dishes originating from across south-east Asia. Spring rolls, stir-fries, noodles and curries are to be found in abundance. And indeed spicy salads too, which is where I started, of which more in a moment.
Viet Kitchen is just up the road from the Odeon cinema, and situated in the floor above a betting shop. Not too prepossessing, but that you are entering a sanctuary of tranquility is marked by a small grotto in the well below a notably steep staircase, as if ascending the Himalayan foothills.
Once we arrived and negotiated past the tropical fish tank (is this a Vietnamese feature?) we found service in the form of a single waiter, serving maybe 3 or 4 occupied tables. Not too onerous a task, you might think, but service was for the entire evening conducted at a relaxed rate of knots; the table next to us was cleared a good half hour after its occupants had vanished into the night, for example.
At no point did the waiter seem anxious to take our drinks order, let alone food. When we did order, the kitchen seemed to progress at the same languid pace, such that an early plate of starters was followed by the soup course and one of the mains a good time later. I didn’t time it, but in the meantime we had discussed life, the universe and everything. In view of this torpor, to add 10% for service to the bill seems distinctly unreasonable, and with the benefit of hindsight I wish we had deducted it.
Our drinks (G&T plus a Hanoi beer, evidently different to the Saigon beer I drank at my previous Viet dinner, plus Jasmine tea) were served well, but then you would have to be pretty awful to screw those up.
So to the food. My companion’s chilli and garlic squid, to be found on many a Szechuan menu these days, was both generous and tasty, albeit laced with enough thinly sliced birdseye chillis to start a roaring blaze over the majority of tongues in Colchester. It’s not that chillis do not add value, nor can we deny the authenticity of a considerable quantity going into Vietnamese dishes, but some concessions to British tastes are surely appropriate – one of which might be to ask the question at the point of ordering how hot the customer wanted their dish?
My duck salad was mercifully less fully endowed, though I did have a few slices, seeds and all. The duck was beautifully crispy, set atop a shredded veg salad, but the promised “duck sauce” seemed to have been replaced by a very pleasant sweetened vinegar dressing. Take good note of this, because it was the last evidence of any form of sauce or dressing that night. Luckily for me I did order the bowl of seafood pho, which helped to moisturise the main courses, taken through separate spoonfuls. The broth was tasty and the seafood moist and tender, as you would hope.
For mains we chose a prawn and glass noodle stir-fry and “shaking beef” – the latter arriving as grilled cubes of rump with a spiced paste mounted on top of another salad, this one consisting of shredded iceberg and cherry tomatoes. There was nothing wrong with the beef as such, and for all I know this may well be how the Vietnamese expect their beef to be served, but to British tastes it seemed more akin to steak and chips without the chips but with a very generous garnish. It needed something, and a sharp sauce with veg might well have done the trick. Alas, my dry coconut rice only made matters worse.
The stir fry looked like a good old-fashioned “chop suey” with noodles, but also looked too dry. Perhaps I should have asked what sauces the kitchen had to hand, but something was definitely required.
Bearing in mind the length of service, we didn’t hang around for desserts, coffees or anything else. Truth be told, we were feeling a bit sleepy by this time, though I suspect our waiter would have been quite content to tiptoe out and leave us dozing quietly over the table.
Having escaped back to the cool Colchester night, the view seemed easy to agree: it’s not that the food at Viet Kitchen is terminally awful, but with a little more thought and care it could have been very much better – and the intermediary service was key to success, since at no point were we asked if everything was OK. Had we been, I might have launched into the full saga, chapter and verse about how this was a restaurant sleepwalking through its service.
As it is, a copy of this review to the manager may elicit some thought and a few subtle changes to improve matters, but I suggest starting by employing additional waiters and kitchen staff, and actually researching what diners want and need would go a long way towards a better dining experience rather than a remarkably lazy Wednesday evening.