Thursday, 29 October 2009

It's all in the seasoning...

Life's a careful, fragile balance, I think we can say. Work-life, love-friends, priorities-commitments - it's all about how many balls and how few hands. Mostly, it carries on just straight as you like, but every now and then, you get thrown a curve ball. Just how you're meant to catch it when you're intent on juggling all the others is anybody's guess, but field it you do and (mixed metaphor fast approaching) what turns out to be on first sight an overdose of searingly hot and unpleasant chilli can turn out to be the very pep it all needed to help it whoosh along like gangbusters, perhaps albeit at a tangent to the original.

All of which is a ramblingly musing way of saying that we could learn a lot from Vietnamese cuisine. No, really. Bear with me. It seems to me they've got it down - that blend of sweet, sour, salty, fresh and every now and then a zing of chilli to waken the tastebuds. This was made crystal-clear to me at last night's feast at Mien Tay, Clapham Junction's newly-opened sister branch to the one in Shoreditch.

Brace yourselves, it's an orgy of food. So much so, for the first time, I actually understood the invention and appeal of the Roman vomitarium. We started with a fresh salad of thinly sliced beef with coriander and lime, the beef perhaps poached in a little stock or similar so that it was meltingly tender and just cooked.

Followed by a platter of goodies: quail roasted and then sprinkled as desired with a salt-sugar-white pepper mixture and lime; deep-fried soft shell crab looking more than a little 'en crapaud' as the invading French might say; beef wrapped in betel leaves which you eat in the same chopstick-grab as a rice paper-wrapped vermicelli roll and dipped in a delicate chilli sauce; rice-paper spring rolls, crisp as a winter day, filled with minced chicken and prawns and - just as a palate freshener - lightly pickled carrots for crunch and lift.

Followed by beef cooked in coco-juice (guess coconut water, not milk) and wine vinegar in a little pot on a gas burner - DIY fondue Vietnamese-style. Ravishing, the beef swirled in the juices until opaque, then tipped over a vermicelli/salad bowl with a little of the juices and chilli sauce; Goat (who knew?) with galangal, strong-tasting and slightly curried; monster prawns in egg-yolk and garlic sauce (blee, egg, left this one for my fellow trooper); side dishes of morning glory and pak choi with garlic; pho with beef brisket and beef balls, the broth stomach-settling in its crystal-clear, somehow soothing intensity. There could have been more, but at this point my brain was starting to reject the notion of yet more. There should/could have been stir-fried eel and another spicy goat dish - we certainly wanted them - but I couldn't tell you with any certainty we had them, as it all started to blur...

Rainbow seaweed drink - of course - with actual kidney beans lurking in its murky opalescent depths wasn't for me, but the Vietnamese coffee, as rhapsodized over by a certain M. Bourdain, was excellent. They drip strong bitter coffee (gorgeous just as it was) onto a - how can I put this without the imagery seeming off-putting - bottom-floater of condensed milk. Then you stir and drink - sweet and strong and surprisingly addictive for this dedicated non-milk drinker.

There isn't a wine list as such - house wine seems to be whatever they've got on hand, but I noticed tables operating on a BYO, which seems ultimately sensible. Main courses range around the £6 which is an indescribable bargain, considering the quantity of food in each dish - we shared each one comfortably between two.

Despite each dish having its own distinct, hardly faint-hearted flavours, the overwhelming impression was one of levity, of each component working in harmony with the others on the plate, everything there for a purpose, the seasoning minutely adjusted to enhance the main ingredient rather than overwhelm.

Oh, there you go - we're back to balance again. Told you Vietnamese had all the answers.


Hurlstone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hurlstone said...

Hi Jo,
Great post pleased to see you sampled as much as possible in one go!
I asked Mr and Mrs Le about the kidney beans and they said that they sometimes use these the same way they use mung beans in Vietnamese cooking.
Also just so you know they are going to introduce a paired wine list soon, which will be great to try with their food I can't wait!
Hope that info helps and that you enjoy your next visit to Mien Tay.

Lizzie said...

I love Mien Tay - i've been twice and I've always enjoyed it, I loved the pho. Such sweet service too.

Jo said...

Lizzie - Any other great Vietnamese and the like around, let me know. Could fast become my new obssession.

Hurlstone said...

Hi Jo,

Just to let you know Mien Tay have posted a link to your review on their site. I hope this is ok with you, any probs just drop me a line. x