Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

Micro-Chain Asian Restaurants

with 4 comments

On Friday, I went to see the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the Barbican which meant two things. Firstly, I enjoyed a leisurely glass of Springfield Estate 2009 Life From A Stone at the Barbican Lunge whilst waiting for my wife to finish work. Secondly, we spurned the Barbican’s mediocre and over-priced food offerings for Pho. This is the original of what is now a small chain of restaurants selling classic Vietnamese dishes in a Westernised environment. This manifests itself in the decor, service and modest length of the menu which – as the name suggests – focuses on pho and bun as well as a few salads and curries.

We usually start with summer rolls because you do, don’t you? However, my wife had managed to squeeze in a round of cake and champagne before leaving work so wanted to move straight to mains. I felt a bit hard done by so ordered some pork spring rolls to accompany my lemongrass beef bun. I always order bun – soupy noodles rather than noodle soup – because a basterdised version of pho forms one of a our core meals at home. You get a bowl of beef, beansprouts and noodles, you pour over the nuoc cham (always ask for the spicy version) and you’ve got a quick, delicious and healthy meal that is perfect for pre-theatre dining. Okay, slightly less healthy when you’ve burnt your mouth wolfing down three spring rolls dipped in peanut sauce and then washed them down with a bottle of Hue beer. Ignoring the unneccessary starter, this is £12-13 a head (depending on whether you want meat, prawn or tofu) including service.

Then on Saturday I tried to combine two seperate social engagements by having dinner near Lamb’s Conduit Street before going down the pub. If the Barbican means Pho then this patch of London means going to the Hare & Tortoise in the Brunswick Centre. I used to live in Bloomsbury in the late Nineties and back then the centre was frankly a shit hole. However, a couple of years ago it underwent a major renovation and it is now a much more pleasant place which lives up to its modernist ambitions.

The Hare & Tortoise is on the east side next to the excellent Renoir cinema (part of another micro-chain – Curzon Cinemas) and is easily identifiable by the queue outside. This is because they don’t take reservations so make sure you get there a bit earlier than you want to eat (every time I’ve been the queue has been pretty fast moving though). You might expect this to be a recipe for a high pressure Wagamama-style table turning but whilst the service and kitchen are definitely brisk, the atmosphere is more convivial and the food is decidedly better.

The menu is much longer than Pho’s and is primarily Japanese but with excursions across the whole of South East Asia. We imposed our Western habits and split the menu into starters (tempura, nigiri, sashimi, maki and sides) and mains (ramen, noodle and rish dishes) but the price structure is relatively flat and you are only going to break the £7 barrier if you order sashimi or a sushi box. The highlight of the starters was maguro tataki, seared tuna encrusted with nori and sesame in a shoyu dressing, and we ended up ordering three portions of these. Also impressive was a dragon roll, a tempura prawn stuffed into an inside-out seaweed roll and dusted with fish roe, but all the starters were very well done. I followed this with chicken katsu curry which I would criticise slightly for the thickness of its sauce but which was a steal at £6.50. All in all, the bill came to a wonderfully low £22 a head, including service and a pint of Kirin each since, in another point in their favour, they have this on draft.

I’ve eaten at Wagamama many times, I’m pleased it has been so successful at popularising Japanese food to the UK and it is still your best bet for a quick, cheap meal in a lot of places. But it has obviously become a bit of a victim of its own success; no one at Wagamama cares what your food is actually like, they are already onto the next customer. These two restaurants both show why smaller is often better.

Written by Martin

10 October 2011 at 15:26

4 Responses

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  1. I’m guessing this means we were both at the same birthday party on Saturday evening.


    10 October 2011 at 22:53

  2. Yep. I had friends visiting from out of town so tried (with only partial success) to combine the two. This means I had a brief chat with one birthday boy, pretty much missed the other and did zero mingling.


    11 October 2011 at 10:12

  3. […] underpowered seared tuna with marinated beetroot and tarragon to the wonderful tuna I had at the Hare & Tortoise the other week. The tarragon was entirely abscent, whatever the beetroot had been marinated in […]

  4. Not quite a micro-chain but small and growing is Busabi Eathai, which is a very handy when you want to eat sitting down in central London. I thought I’d mentioned it here before but don’t appear to have done so. Here are my notes from my second visit:

    “Calamari with soy and ginger is a very ample portion, perhaps too much for one person to eat before the squid cools down too much. My dolly pad mee was advertised as “with cherry tomato and choi sum” and it did indeed come with one cherry tomato. Decent amount of choi sum, crab cakes and prawns, though the later were slightly mushy and they’d used too much heat. Not as good as the pad kweito I had last time.”

    I’ve since been again and once more had the calamari. It was much hotter and fresher than the two previous times so I suspect had come out of the kitchen quicker and it made a big difference. Continuing my march through the noodle dishes I had sen chan pad Thai last time. It is the priciest (£9.10) and my favourite so far: mango and seafood is a great combination. Beerlao is, of course, mandatory.

    Last night I was at Feng Sushi on the Southbank (one of seven branches across London). I’d seen it before but had mentally filed it in the Itsu/Wasabi box. Looking at the menu, I realised how wrong I’d been. The first thing that jumped out was the price, the second was how exciting the dishes were. They specialise almost exclusively in fish and seafood (I think there was one duck item on the menu) and make a great deal of sustainability and sourcing. You’ve got your nigiri, maki, sashimi and so on but a bit more interesting.

    So, for example, yellowtail upside down was discs of cucumber carrying the tuna and then topped with wakame, pickled jalapeno, coriander, avocado and yuzu kimchee dressing. It was absolutely stunning. Tempura was a selection of excellent ingredients (oyster, tiger prawn, scallop and soft shell crab) with and unusual lemon poppy seed dip, again showing sourcing plus invention but with the added bonus of brilliantly executed tempura. The only duff note was a noodle broth that was essentially one note (labelled “chilli jam” but I couldn’t say how that differed from plain chilli) and contain only a very meagre amount of udon and cuttlefish. Not cheap though: four dishes, two drinks and service came to £70. Leaving the broth to one side, it was worth every penny.


    22 January 2012 at 14:02

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