I have been desperate for a Vietnamese place to pop up near me for aeons. I work in Holborn and there are more Japanese joints than you could shake a stick at, but no sign of Vinafood save Pho on St John Street, which is just that little bit too far for me to make a lunch hour trip.
So when the Grubworm informed me that Potemkin at the end of Leather Lane had turned into Cafe VN, I was almost shaking with excitement (yes, I'm a food nerd). I don't know how I'd missed this, as he himself calls me Foodie Central and I traipse down Leather Lane at least twice a week. We organised a meet-up with several others for that Friday and I waited.
And then on Thursday, overwhelmed with pho cravings, I stopped waiting and ran down to Cafe VN by myself. Actually ran, and I never run.
First impression was that I'd wandered into a trendy staff canteen. Everything was bright, shiny, plasticky white and green, and faintly painful-looking as if to encourage you not to linger. And to add to my discomfort, there was no room at the inn, so I was forced to perch awkwardly on a high stool at the bar.
I felt a bit foolish, as the bar was clearly not meant for sitting at, being narrow and covered in spare menus and cruets. But I was hungry and wanted my pho. I ordered the prawn summer rolls (aka goi cuon) and the beef special pho, spicy, and asked for it to come together.
While I waited, I studied the cocktail menu - surprisingly extensive considering this wouldn't be the obvious venue for a person to spend a louche evening. The food arrived very promptly though, which put paid to me ordering a sneaky lunchtime Long Island Iced Tea. The waiter apologised that the summer rolls had surfaced with the pho and then seemed incredulous that I had indeed asked for their simultaneous arrival.
To my joy, the summer rolls came with my favourite nuoc cham rather than peanutty hoisin which I find too sickly sweet. And the rolls themselves were well-made - fatly stuffed with prawns and pleasingly stretchy noodles. Fresh and fabulous (if a little herb-deficient), they slipped down my throat worryingly fast.
The beef special pho also hit the spot, with a deep, spicy stock, those stretchy noodles, bouncy beef balls and a generous scattering of raw beef slices.
Again however, the herb portion was stingy - I would have killed for a handful of coriander. And oh - the sliced chilli rings had no heat at all and instead tasted sweet and fruity like red pepper.
As I bent over the bar to trough the broth, I realised my awkward seating arrangement (and excitement) was causing me to flick soup everywhere, but thankfully I was done in no time at all, and could surreptitiously wipe the counter down with some napkins before anyone could see.
Sated, I asked for the bill and merrily waved a printout from Cafe VN's Facebook page entitling me to 20% off my meal. The waitress looked delighted and said to me "Do you play games?". Flummoxed, I said "Do you mean like Farmville?". She replied "Oh yes - I need more neighbours!" and then her colleague came up to her and said "You're not scaring our customers away talking about Farmville again, are you?". Abashed, she dashed off to get my bill - I paid, said I'd be back and left with a grin on my face.
So the next day, I happily returned with the foodie posse. This time we ordered the veg summer rolls as well as the prawn, the spicy squid, the papaya and mango salad, and the porky bun cha for our mains.
Drinks were more entertaining this time around. I ordered the watermelon bubble tea which was a zingy delight of freshly blitzed watermelon and chewy sago balls. A friend ordered artichoke tea which I adore though I think she was less impressed.
The veg summer rolls were a bit blah - shredded carrot and rice noodles does not a taste sensation make, even if dipped in that sweet nuoc cham. Yes, I missed having a prawny element.
The squid was fantastic though - wonderfully crisp batter, tender squid and an umami-rich sprinkling of stir-fried and caramelised garlic chips, chillies and spring onions.
The papaya and mango salad was a massive disappointment though.
Devoid of any flavour, chomping the squeaky, julienned veg was like gnawing cable ties, providing nothing but texture and empty promises. Pretty though.
Things looked up slightly with the mains. The bun cha had quality ingredients with beautifully elastic, thick, fat bun noodles and well-flavoured (if sadly unsmoky) grilled belly pork. But the dressing lacked any kind of punch, and I ended up scraping the squid's leftover garlicky garnish into my noodles in an attempt to liven up the dish. Talking of dishes, the crockery is incredibly cool - the bun cha bowls resemble Eero Arnio's Ball Chair.
So an uneven start for Cafe VN. It's fairly priced and I'd definitely return for the pho and the summer rolls (though I'd be tempted to smuggle in my own chillies), but I'd give the salad and the bun cha a miss in future.
Unless I felt the urge to steal one of those gorgeous bowls.
144 Clerkenwell Road
020 7278 4123