One of the joys of living in Hackney is the abundance of Vietnamese restaurants. Cay Tre is one of my favourite of these but I don’t actually visit it that often. This is because it is situated on Old Street, passed dozens of other, closer restaurants on Kingland Road and Mare Street but at ground zero for the Shoreditch night time economy. Its quality, location and modest size mean it is always rammed; when we arrived for our table at 9pm on Friday, the queue – as always – was out the door and there were plenty of people happy to stand there for twenty minutes to get a table.
Going out for Vietnamese is a pretty casual experience and is often plagued by two general flaws: overly long menus and lousy service. For example, it is sometimes hard to sort the wheat from the chaff perusing Tre Viet’s phone book-sized menu and the service at Huong-Viet is almost comically inept. Those are actually two of my other favourites but it does make the brisk economy of Cay Tre a breath of fresh air.
The compact menu allows them to showcase a large number of house specials which all have a nice little description below them (another rarity), even if this does sometimes tend to the cheesy such as describing shrimp fritters as “crunchtastic”. We still ordered them since they sounded intriguing, although with summer rolls (since that is pretty much the law) and salt and pepper squid (because we are greedy). I’m not sure when me and my wife fell into ordering three starters for the two of us – I think I was probably the insitigator – but we need to knock it on the head to avoid eating ourselves to death. This is particularly true at Cay Tre, where the starters are essentially the same size as mains.
Summer rolls are innocent enough – one for you, one for me, three bites and its gone, nom nom nom – and you can even pretend they are healthy (until you bang them into the toung xào and then scoop up the rest of the sauce with your finger). Then came a mound of batter and another mound of deep fried squid. Eep. Copious nouc cham was needed, I am now more convinced than ever that the shrimp is just a dirty prawn and by the end of it we both felt slightly ill. Enjoyably ill but I think we’ve learnt our lesson.
However, although we might have learnt our lesson for the future, we hadn’t invented a time machine. What about the mains? We were a bit apprehensive at this point, particularly since we had both ordered some of the most substantial items on the menu. My “very manly” pork belly was well named: massive chunks of fatty pork served with a dark, rich broth which it had obviously been stewing in for some considerable time since it was soft enough to cut with a spoon. It described itself as being blowtorched so I was hoping for crackling but this had obviously been only to sear the outside and provide a bit of colour as the fat was still, well, fat. I’m afraid this much lard was just too much for me to face. My wife’s catfish was similarly blubbery and intense. It was also slightly dangerous.
As I mentioned, it isn’t the biggest restaurant in the world and they pack in the covers with the result before you’ve progressed very far with your meal every inch of your tiny table is already covered with crockery. This requires a bit of shuffling at the best of times. When your catfish comes in a clay pot resting on a saucer of alcohol which the waiter deftly lights almost before you’ve noticed it has arrived, this shuffling becomes rather more urgent. “I’ve just lost all the hair off my arm,” my wife remarked mildly. The pay off for this is a dark sauce that thickens and caramelises as you (warily) watch. Delicious but, again, heavy on the palette. To further add to our gluttony, we have a long standing marital rice disagreement – I think steamed rice is pointless, she thinks its pointlessness is the point – which means we always unnecessarily order two bowls of rice. I think I’ve finally learnt my lesson on this too.
Somehow we made it onto the bus home but that was us done for the night. £29 a head, including service and two beers each. We will be back but we will be more cautious next time.