REVIEW: Pho Vietnamese restaurant, Brighton

by - June 18, 2010

Straight off I need to say that Pho is not a chain restaurant per se. Its modern design and strong branding may look like it and, as us Brightonians are not used to seeing chain restaurants (although getting more common), it's only natural to compare it with the closest visual thing we have in town which is Wagamamas.

Pho, however, is actually a family run business, born out of a passion for travel and Vietnamese street food. And, as food and passion go naturally hand in hand for me, I was very excited to see if the heart behind the idea extended to the food itself.

It was good to meet owner Stephen Wall, who along with his wife Juliette opened the first Pho in Clerkenwell in 2005 (the latest Pho in Brighton brings them up to 4 locations). He talked me through the menu (39 dishes, roughly based on 5 or 6 core recipes) and the reasons why and how Pho came about. Really nice chap. Not afraid to roll his sleeves up and serve on the floor with his staff and chat to the ever increasing number of customers coming through the door. He believes Pho "needs to educate people about Vietnamese food" and introduce us to the fresh, clean flavours of the country. Not knowing much at all, I was happy to be a student.

Let's get straight down to the food because I ate a lot of it!

Stephen strongly recommended the Nem Nuong, grilled pork and lemongrass meatballs (£4.50). Worthy of their recommendation, these really were divine. I loved the lettuce and mint leaves supplied with them, which you wrap around the meatballs, dunk into a light dipping sauce and relish with glee. The dryish texture and pout from the lemongrass was really good.

The Goi Cuon Tom, fresh summer rolls with prawns (£3.75), were served with a peanut and chilli dipping sauce and a fish sauce. To be honest you either love or hate the spongy texture of the rice paper. I like the chewiness but Mr. GF was not so keen. Very tasty and a nice light option for the summer. Team this with the Goi Xoai salad further below and you will never look at a chain cafe sandwich again for lunch.

The Cha Gio fried pork spring rolls £3.95 were great. They looked really appetising, had nice texture and were very moorish.

Although technically not a starter, I wanted to try the Goi Xoai, a spicy shredded green mango salad served with crumbled pork, dried shrimp and peanuts (£4.50). And it really was a star, rammed with lovely fresh flavours, crunchy textures, zingy lime and mint. Grotesquely healthy and vibrant. (I have since been back 3 times for this one salad - no lie.)

All of the above was enough to feed a normal couple happily. However, us being us we couldn't miss out on the mains.

The Bun noodle dishes are a nice option for a summer evening. Mr GF went for the Bun Cha Gio Tom with tiger prawns (£7.95). When the bowl arrives it's like peering into a gift box. Lots and lots of nice things to discover. The fat tiger prawns were nestled in with vermicelli rice noodles, stir fried bean sprouts, fresh herbs, salad, a fried spring roll and crunchy peanut topping. It is served with nuoc cham sauce in either spicy or regular which you tip over the whole dish and mix together. Lovely.

But I really think if you go to Pho you need to order Pho, the whole inspiration for the restaurant and Vietnam's national dish, eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Looking at the size of the arriving bowl it could singularly cover all these meals in one sitting. It was the size of my head! I spied the gigantic stock pot earlier on, which I could have easily fitted into, and Pho is all about the stock, taking around 12 hours to prepare.

There are 15 different Pho soups with different ingredients and different stock bases. I went for the Bun Bo Hue, a hot and spicy brisket beef soup (£7.75). I loved the accompanying plate of goodies including lime, fresh chilli, a potent shrimp, garlic and chilli paste, beansprouts, coriander and mint. This is the beauty of most dishes at Pho. You create your own dish to taste. You can add condiments, herbs and heat to suit your own palette or mood. Great for engaging with an unknown cuisine and to keep the dishes fresh for future visits, as you can tweak the flavours round. The beef stock itself is liquid gold, rich, multi-layered flavours, wholesome and comforting. The brisket was incredibly tender having also been cooked with the stock for 12 hours. The pho noodles (you could try the thinner vermicelli noodles here too) were quite unwieldy with chopsticks at first, but once you worked at it and reduced them to a more manageable amount it was a thoroughly enjoyable dish to eat. I can't wait to go back and try some of the other versions.

Worth mentioning is the nice selection of Vietnamese beers on the menu and we started off with a thirst quenching Halida from northern Vietnam moving on to Beer Lao, which was for more interesting and unique.

Bulging tummies (why the hell did I wear my spray-on skinny jeans tonight?!) were calmed with some Vietnamese coffee, served with condensed milk. Unfortunately their order of weasel coffee, which is eaten, digested and er, passed by the animal, had not come in yet (possibly due to constipated weasels) but well worth a try if you go.

Now for the design bit, concentrate! This is a well designed space which has gets the atmosphere bang on. Raw scaffolding planks hang on the ceiling with modern bare-bulb lighting. I like the choice of seating; in a booth, in an intimate spot on the side on high tables, on a communal bench table, in the back on standard table and chairs, on the bar overlooking the open kitchen or outside. Perfect for a quiet meal for two, a crowd of friends or a solo lunch with the kitchen for company. The twig panelling nods towards Vietnamese interiors, but Pho does not pander to creating a Micky Mouse Vietnamese themed restaurant. I really liked it.

The friendliness of the staff is also worth mentioning. A lot of the dishes need some explaining as to how to eat or assemble them, so their advice was appreciated.

Pho also offer take-away which is ideal for fleeting work lunches al-desko or perfect for grabbing and taking the short hop and skip down to the beach for a healthy alternative to a chip supper.

I visited on an early Wednesday evening and the place was surprisingly heaving, people waiting at the door. Hype? Word of mouth (worth its salt in this city)? Intrigue? Whatever. Pho is a welcome and very affordable addition to the Brighton dining scene. Pho is a must-go.

12 Black Lion Street

I was invited to review Pho as a guest.

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