The last time I visited South East Asia, I left with a salty mane of plaited hair, a battered back pack and a tan which blended beautifully into my dirt brown bathers (quite a feat considering my natural moon tan). I did not leave with the entrepreneurial inclination to set up my own mini chain of London restaurants replicating my favourite highlights of the local cuisine. Most likely, I was too busy trying to untangle my hair before the cameras came out - complete nightmare.
However, that is exactly what husband and wife team, Stephen and Juliette Wall have done. Having travelled around South East Asia and fallen in love the pho soups (pronounced "feu"), they ditched their office jobs 5 years ago and set up Pho (pronounced "fow", in a kind of oh-for-Goddsakes-I-give-up concession to the locals).
The first Pho restaurant opened on St John Street in Clerkenwell in 2005 and since then they have multiplied like cheeky gizmos into branches in Great Titchfield Street and Westfield Shopping Centre. In May, the new Brighton branch is due to open, and a new site in Soho has just been purchased.
Coming from Australia, a country abound in fresh, flavourful, colourful Vietnamese fare, TPG and I have found it quite an ordeal to find decent Vietnamese food in London outside of Kingsland Road. Fresh and zesty, Vietnamese food should be packed with the full range of spicy, sour, bitter, salty and sweet flavours. To date, Cay Tre is a favourite.
However, it was on our maiden voyage to Westfield last year that we first discovered Pho, and were pleasantly surprised to find such a gorgeous bowl of noodle soup in a shopping centre food court. Since then, our experiences at the Great Titchfield Street restaurant have been more mixed as we found the flavours sometimes lacked the punch of our first experience depending on our order. Therefore, I happily accepted an invitation to visit Pho with some other bloggers last week, to learn more about the business first hand.
It's too easy to accuse a chain restaurant, and particularly a Vietnamese chain being run by non-Vietnamese people, of being bland and inauthentic. The husband and wife team at Pho have employed a full team of Vietnamese cooks, have done their utmost to remain true to the fresh Vietnamese flavours of their travels and have kept to simple menu focussed mainly on what they do best - the pho.
A pho is a serious business, afteall, and is not to be treated lightly. Taking on the status of a revered national dish in Vietnam, it's basically a noodle soup containing chicken, beef, pork, tofu or prawns, eaten at all times of day in its natural habitat - often on a plastic chair at the side of a street cart. The pho stocks at Pho are prepared from scratch on site, and take up to 12 hours to prepare, simmering away alluringly in large vats in the kitchen.
We started with a lesson demonstrating how to make our own goi cuon tom (fresh rice paper rolls filled with prawns, salad and herbs). Some call them "summer rolls" but, to the Aussie girl in me, a Summer Roll will always involve chocolate, peanuts, coconut and nougat (highly recommended, by the way).
Platters of fried spring rolls followed, filled with pork (a favourite) or veggies, as well as nem nuong (pork and lemongrass meatballs - I somehow missed these) and ginormous bursting platters of goi du du (papaya salads alternatively containing chicken or prawns). Papaya salad or a Vietnamese chicken salad is always an essential when I visit any Vietnamese restaurant, and Pho's versions were lovely, refreshing and tasty, although I prefer slightly more of a chilli hit (I'm sure you could ask for it).
Having spied the sensational looking beef stock brewing away in the kitchen, my bowl of the pho bo dac biet did not disappoint (noodle soup with steak, brisket and meatballs - the beefy trifecta - why limit yourself to 1 style of beef?). As always, it was served with a side of herbs, lime and chilli to be added to taste. The flavours were subtle but lovely, and as always, I find pho to leave me feeling healthy and replenished. Serving sizes are satisfyingly generous - particularly given they fall within a £6.95 - £7.95 price range.
Hot and spicy soups and noodle dishes are also on offer, but save room for the banana fritter with honey and ginger ice-cream - oh my. I'm sure there was a bit of "I'll have what she's having" going on as I enthusiastically enjoyed mine.
I rate Pho as a terrific option for a healthy, tasty and fulfilling meal, particularly if you love Vietnamese food as much as I do, and particularly if you find yourself on the other side of town to the strip of Vietnamese places on Kingsland Road. It's definitely the best option I've found around the West End for Vietnamese food. And having met the passionate duo behind the business, Pho now has a face - and I like it even more than I did before.
* I was a guest of Pho, attending a blogger event, and so my meal and drinks were free of charge on my last visit - although this review is also based on my experiences at several previous visits where I attended incognito as a paying customer.