Cay Tre (London Vietnamese) and the mystery of the herb platter
Three of us went to Cay Tre (301 Old Street, 020 7729 8662) last Saturday. We were a group of ex-pat Americans who have had Vietnamese in numerous locations in London, Europe and the US (East and West coasts), but not in Vietnam.
--Cha ca, monkfish marinated in galangal and tumeric grilled and served with onions and dill over bun (rice noodles). Delicious, but somewhat different than I have had it in the States where the fish was much firmer and we were served an herb platter and noodles separately so that we could wrap and eat or jumble up and eat as we wished. This fish was a bit soft (over-marinated?) and the waitress prepared it at table for us, grilling the fish and onions and dill and then putting everything in the bowl with the noodles for us. Quite good, I'd go back for more.
--Soft (not fried) summer rolls with shrimp and lettuce, etc and rolled in rice paper. The standard summer roll, good job.
--Cha gio, these fried rolls were huge and unwieldy and came with an anemic herb platter of iceberg lettuce and only one tiny sprig of mint. But extra credit for a few stands of shredded green papaya. The cha gio tasted ok, just ok. But I am confused because I've noticed that the cha gio I've had in London are made like Chinese spring rolls (burrito sized!) instead of the very tiny ones (about an inch long and only the width of a woman's ring finger) that I have had in Washington DC, San Diego and Hawaii. I thought cha gio were supposed to be small so you could easily wrap them in some lettuce and have the lovely mouthful contrast of warm and crunchy/greasy against cool and crispy/clean. These huge cha gio at Cay Tre are too big to wrap and therefore lose the balance of fried to fresh. Strange. I won't reorder them.
--'Shaking beef', stir-fried cubes of marinated spiced beef, very tasty and tender.
--Simmered 'orange duck'. This tasted very good, but had a disappointing presentation (a bowl of grey-brown shredded duck meat in a brown-orange sauce).
--Clay pot mackerel with black pepper and caramel sauce. I make this at home a lot with trout, but with mackerel it was great. The smell as you lift the lid of the pot activates all your chowhound enzymes. I shared this time, but next time I'll order the whole pot just for me.
All this with big bowls of plain steamed rice and some standard Vietnamese beer.
The price was very cheap for London (sorry I don't have the receipt on me), somewhat less than something comparable at Song Que (on Kingsland Road).
We will be back to try the Bun Bo and Pho and some of the vegetable dishes which looked fab as they went by. So, it is worth a visit, but I have yet to find a Vietnamese restaurant in London that blows my mind.
Which brings me to my 'mystery':
Why are are herb platters so anemic in Vietnamese restaurants throughout Europe? In the States one gets big plates of lovely bibb or other lettuce (made for wrapping) rather than iceburg which doesn't bend and doesn't have much of a taste. You also usually have several kinds of herbs like basil, mint and coriander and perhaps some exotic herbs and bean sprouts, depending on the restaurant. In various locations in Europe, I have never been offered (even when I beg and describe what I want) anything like the above. Now, since I have had fabulous herb platters at several Lebanese and Iranian restaurants in London, I know it isn't a matter of sourcing the fresh ingredients. So what's the deal? Anyone?
Also, any comments on the giant cha gio? Is this just a variation? I'd love to hear from people who have actually been to Vietnam.
The Vietnamese restaurants in London seem to be highly sinicised. Of the 2 retaurants I've eaten in London's Chinatown claiming "authentic" Vietnamese cooking, there was no one there who even spoke Vietnamese despite the fact that the staff were Asian-looking. When I made a point about it, the manager went into the kitchen to fetch an elderly man who came out speaking in very broken Vietnamese with a heavy Chinese accent. I guess he was trying to prove the "authenticity" of his Vietnamese claim.
I assume this Chinese-connection is be the unfortunate cause of the burrito-sized cha?-giò rather than the fingerling version eaten by Vietnamese. Fresh raw herbs while quintessential for the Vietnamese table are unknown to Chinese.
I live in Saigon -- regualr cha gio in Vietnam are always small and thin (thinner the better). Meant to be wrapped in some sort of lettuce or leaf with an herb sprig or two and then dipped, as you observed. Cha gio cua (filled with mostly crab) are sometimes a bit fatter, but still never as large as you describe in your post.