Having eaten many different meals in many different places, I often return to the popular theory that the best food is inversely proportional to the fanciness of the surroundings it is served in. While, of course, there are exceptions to the rule, stunning views often means sub-par grub at inflated prices, while dingy back streets filled with inauspicious looking eateries have to rely on good cooking and word of mouth.
Which is why I had high hopes for our meal at Phomac - a Vietnamese restaurant and takeaway recently opened at back of the Gamekeeper’s Lodge pub in Chesham - despite my Dad, who was staying with me and kindly offered to give me a lift, and both the Ewing and our friend Maz, dining companions for the evening, all remaining resolutely sceptical. Indeed, my Dad’s first words while trying to turn around in the car park with out blowing all the tyres on the hire car on potholes, was; ‘is this definitely it?’
It is true that this wouldn’t be the most obvious location for a taste of old Hai Noi. The Gamekeeper’s is a resolutely old school hostelry, complete with pool table, horse brasses tacked along the bar and a variety of stuffed curios and fishing memorabilia decorating the walls. You may say it has ‘character’; it also has very friendly staff and a decent, cheapish, pint of Bombardier which I find provides a good starting point to most evenings.
Having already studied the menu at home I already had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to try, starting with the lace-thin pork and prawn Bánh xèo, or sizzling cake, so called because of the sound the turmeric-tinged batter makes when hitting the pan. The crisp pancake was folded around slivers of meat, shrimps, spring onion and bean sprouts and came with the traditional fresh herbs and lettuce leaves to wrap plus a dish of fish sauce and chilli for dipping. Far more fun than a spring roll.
Given half a chance and the Ewing orders prawn summer rolls, my idea of the quintessential Vietnamese snack, after she fell in love with them when I took her for a birthday meal down the Kingsland Road a few years ago. The translucent rice wrappers came ready stuffed with their seafood, noodle and herb filling, rather than being an assemble yourself job, saving on their laundry bill, and made the perfect choice for a hot and sticky evening.
The ladie's mains were both soup based, with the Ewing choosing the beef pho and Maz the beef bún huế. Generous bowls of deep, lemongrass-scented, meaty stock, full of rare slices of beef and springy rice noodles and served with side dishes of beansprouts and herbs for scattering on top.
I went for the ‘dry’ Hai Noi seabream version of the bún huế, a dish served with all the soup accoutrements, but no stock. My bowl with its little nuggets of turmeric dusted fish, crunchy peanuts and bundles of zippy fresh mint and perilla leaves was the perfect balance of spicy, sour, salty and sweet.
Maz also ordered a plate of the delicate steamed prawns in a coconut cream and lemongrass flavoured sauce, while the Ewing insisted on the scallops fried with ginger and spring onion. Both were chock-full of sweet seafood, with the prawns being particularly good.
To finish Vietnamese coffee - rich and sweet with the addition condensed milk - available both hot or iced. They also have banana fritters and a changing selection of tropical fruit, but even a whiff of a durian would have been a step too far after such a feast.
While you can eat in the small restaurant area at the back, they were happy to serve our food to us in the pub, or even outside in the garden; a good option if you happen to visit on an unseasonably warm day, as we did, when you've already had two showers and it's not even seven o'clock. Casual surroundings also seem to encourage sitting back and talking lots of nonsense, which is something that us three are very practised at when we get together. Girls, gossip and good food, a perfect trilogy.