Vietnamese Kitchen/Cay Tre Soho

I’ve eaten Vietnamese in a fair number of cities as far afield as Vancouver, though rarely in London.  Near the client where I am currently working is a Vietnamese street food outlet, accommodating the busy lunchtime market with “Vietnamese baguettes”, pho soups and a range of other snacks and mini-meals.  Not sure about this concept, given that street food should be just that – cooked fresh in street stalls to order and served piping hot in the paper.

Cây Tre Soho is one of four restaurants in the Vietnamese Kitchen chain, and as such is aiming for a different dining experience.  In this case it’s more the contemporary set, people who look for haute cuisine with a twist, served in hypermodern surroundings.

As such, Cây Tre is far divorced from its Vietnamese roots, though the food claims it to be “authentic.”  I’ve debated what is “authentic” and what is not before, though I’d lay heavy odds that the food served in a swish eatery in London bears little relation to the food served by authentic Vietnamese families in Vietnam, which is not to say it is bad food – just not what it claims to be.  However, let’s give them a chance to make a case.  From the website:

If you’re looking for Soho’s most authentic Vietnamese restaurant, look no further than Cây Tre. Combining the unique aromatic flavours of Vietnam with an atmosphere replicating the hustle and bustle of busy Vietnamese life, Cây Tre will sweep you off your feet and drop you in the land of the rising sun. As with all of our Vietnamese restaurants, we pride ourselves on offering an authentic taste of Vietnam using fresh, well sourced ingredients from the British Isles.  We have a saying at Cây Tre, which is ‘to make the simplest of dishes taste good you need the ingredients of time and passion’ and you can be assured we have plenty of both. Every dish, from our street food snacks to our a la carte delicacies, is lovingly prepared with this saying in mind. Take our classic beef Pho for example, which takes over 18 hours to make! Likewise, our wine list is carefully selected by renowned wine writer Malcolm Gluck to match the aromatic dishes on the menu.

Allowing a certain leeway for marketing invective, the question to ask is whether the restaurant lives up to that billing, though some boxes are undoubtedly ticked: the space is warm and inviting, and was certainly bustling on the night I was there; the staff are friendly and reasonably efficient; the menu is enticing for western palates.

A mixed fried seafood starter demonstrated that fresh ingredients were well to the fore, notably some very flavoursome soft-shelled crab and prawns encrusted with salt and chilli.  The mains chosen allowed both sides of the menu to be tested out: a dish of vermicelli noodles and cassava lived up to its billing and came in a huge mound that the diner felt unable to finish.

My choice of Indochine lamb was arguably the hit of the night, though there was not much but lamb cooked to wokky perfection with chilli oil. Alas, the slices of lemongrass were less than edible so had to be fished out from every mouthful.  A fine dish that could have been notably improved without too much effort.

We also ate steamed sticky rice (just right for chopsticks) and a plate of mustard greens that did the business – especially if you like whole smoky garlic cloves – though sadly we lacked the capacity to try out many more interesting-looking dishes.  The fish in particular sounded awesome and maybe is authentic for those living in the Mekong delta, though there is also the occasional nod towards the Vietnamese French colonial heritage:

So the overall experience came over as pleasing and enjoyable.  Prices are a tad high, even allowing for the Soho setting, but it wasn’t so extortionate that you would give it a wide berth henceforward.

But… Vietnam it wasn’t.  For a closer experience I would probably go for the cafe in Vancouver.  But for the fact that prices were in Canadian dollars, you could easily imagine you were walking into an authentic slice of life deep in the backstreets of Saigon.  I’ve not been to Saigon as yet, but somehow I can’t imagine too many places like Cay Tre pulling in the punters there.

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