Micro-Chain Asian Restaurants
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.