the UK based Restaurant and Hotel Review

Adam Kingl says
How I Miss Saigon

Craving exotic food the other day, I ploughed through the yellow pages hunting for that London rarity - Vietnamese cuisine. With a tear in my eye and saliva moistening the lip, I spluttered happily onto the phone book upon spotting Saigon: "A hit, a palpable hit!" Located in the heart of the West End, this restaurant had, before now, eluded my wandering, gustatory eye. But no longer! I fondly rhapsodized to my wife of the little Saigon neighbourhood of Alhambra, California, where I used to work. It seemed any cafe you wandered into featured beaming waiters proudly setting down towering piles of mint, basil, lettuce, and coriander for wrapping around hot, crispy rolls and for scattering over prawn and pork-filled egg crepes (a remnant of French colonialism). About everything is dipped into salty, tangy fish sauce; the Vietnamese version is not as overwhelming as the Thai. Oh, Christmas had come early and visions of Cha Nem danced through my head.

How cruel of Saigon - in Frith Street Soho - to burst my bubble.

Our evening there began awkwardly and barely improved. When we opened the door, discovering an empty dining room, the sole, visible employee looked up from behind the bar and back down to her phone conversation. All the while, pop music blared through the speakers. Finally, deciding to acknowledge the beginning of the dinner shift, our hostess abruptly changed the CD to traditional southeast Asian fare and pointed to a table. The dining room itself is functional with a bit of bamboo and ersatz tree to lend a smidgen of atmosphere. I don't understand the shrub at the entrance, its pot stuffed with beer bottles. Someone please write in to assure me that this is not some sort of "authentic touch".

The emphasis on the menu is clearly the set meals, so much so that our waitress/hostess/etc. seemed decidedly uncomfortable with someone ordering a la carte. In fact, a table of four, who entered a good twenty minutes after us, received their courses well before ours even though we ordered several items in common.

We shared a trio of appetizers including the Cha Nem (3.85), of course. But these tiny spring rolls arrived with only two or three paltry sprigs of herbs. This frugality short-changed the entire effect of an almost fail-proof recipe. How could one not enjoy biting through mild, cool greens into sharp, peppery herbs into a flaking pastry into a hot filling of vermicelli and pork? This dish alone could, and may, keep this establishment knee-deep in regulars. The primary shortcoming, given that most of these ingredients cost pennies to the patron, is a sinmplke lack of generosity.

One curious omission from the menu is the cold rice paper roll, so popular in southeast Asian cuisine. Incredulously, I asked the waitress if they had ever served these raw vegetable rolls. She said that the chef does make them, but "off the menu." Even more curious now, we ordered a serving of three rolls (3.85), and these morsels were both delicious and refreshing. If you dine here, be sure to order them (with a conspiratorial wink) because they beautifully complement hot and spicy food.

We also sampled the Chao Tom (4.75), or grilled prawn paste packed around two sugar cane stalks. Unfortunately, the paste was too gelatinous and insipid, and the limp cane added no sweetness to the appetizer. We were frustrated again when my wife's main course of Tom Sot Ca Chua was a little plate of ungarnished prawns with scallions in a sweet, light chilli sauce. While the flavour was savoury, the portion was, again, meagre for 7.25.

It was only after this dish was finished that our waitress appeared again so I could inform her that she had forgotten my main course! By this time, incidentally, the party of four nearby had finished their ten-dish set meal. My Thap Cam Satay (13.75) finally arrived, which is raw beef, squid, prawn, lamb, chicken, and vermicelli - all to be cooked in a pot of satay sauce bubbling on a burner set on the table. The items tasted fine, but were overwhelmed by the spicy, peanut taste of the broth. Inexplicably, this particular dish was accompanied by a platter of very tasty prawn crackers. I wish we could have ordered these with drinks before the meal.

If you dine at Saigon, try the set meals. The group who ordered this way seemed much happier. In any event, don't forget to fill your wallet before you go. Our meagrely portioned dinner for two without wine came to almost fifty pounds. A fairer price for the quantity and quality would have been about half that. I suppose it's back to the yellow pages when the next craving hits.

Adam Kingl - May 2000

Saigon - 45 Frith Street, London, W1V 5TE
Tel: 020 7437 1672/7109
Open 12-11:30 Mon-Sat, Closed Sundays and Bank Holidays

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