Until recently, Vietnamese food was misunderstood in Britain. No one really knew how to define it, and even the stuff found on Kingsland Road – supposedly London’s hub for authentic Vietnamese – resembled Chinese fare more closely, serving up crispy duck and noodles doused in black bean sauce. Hugh Trung Bui is a restaurateur hailed to be changing the face of Vietnamese food in Britain. Opening his third and fourth eateries in the capital this spring, Hugh’s mission is to celebrate the nuances of Vietnam’s regional cuisines and to banish inaccurate perceptions of his country’s culinary offerings.
He arrived in London in 1999 and took a job at Kingsland Road’s Viet Hoa, earning pocket money for a marketing qualification. “I soon realised that 90% of the menu was Chinese, and the 10% that really was Vietnamese was just street food.” Traditional restaurant food was neglected in favour of the likes of pho, slap-up noodle soup that’s now riding the London trend wave. See our review of new Soho restaurant Pho for evidence.
So, railing against the limitations of street food and the influence of Hong Kong (a stop-off for many of London’s Vietnamese en route here), Hugh’s focus is on acquiring the good quality ingredients required to create a bona fide Vietnamese sit-down meal. “Getting the right materials can be difficult and expensive,” says Hugh, “but another problem was that Vietnamese people stopped going to restaurants during the war.” In essence, Hugh’s challenge wasn’t just to introduce wider Vietnamese cuisine to Brits, but also to re-establish it within the Vietnamese community.
We sit in his flagship, Cây Tre, at 301 Old Street. Unbelievably, this joint launched with just £100,000 behind it, quite a feat when you consider local rents and, more importantly, the expense of the stunning ingredients they use. Smiling and quietly confident, Hugh is clearly very proud of the Cognac ‘Luc Lac’ Shaking Beef that arrives. Served on salad leaves, this mound of rare steak morsels was marinated in whiskey and oyster sauce overnight and then seared briefly with whole garlic. I was blown away. A Wicked Grilled Sate Scallop then came in a half shell, basking in scallion oil, fish sauce and mixed nuts, all of which I tipped down my throat after eating the shellfish. This is traditionally done with mussels, apparently, but the scallops add a luxurious touch.
Given that lobster, monkfish and sirloin steak populate the Cây Tre menu, it’s pretty darn cheap. Yes, it’s higher end than your average east London Vietnamese, but as we know, this ain’t bog-standard street food. Little details, like Voss water (always a way to my decadent heart) and elaborate wallpaper, mark Cây Tre apart from its basic, white- washed counterparts. The heap of shaking beef cost a mere £9.50 and, with several more dishes at this price, you’ve got a reasonable meal for two. That said, pho, tiu bowls, bung sa, and other hearty street food is also available for about a fiver upwards.
Cây Tre has a big following, as does its Kingsland Road sister, Viet Grill. Mark Hix is both a fan and a regular, and has been an unofficial menu consultant, suggesting ways to further distinguish Hugh’s restaurants from the competition. “He was helpful on wine and what kinds would best complement the flavours we used in our food. Oriental restaurants aren’t famous for their wine lists, so he recommended grapes and suppliers.” Hugh’s collaboration with food luminaries doesn’t stop there: his latest project has involved an alliance with Sally Clarke.
Across from Cây Tre, Kêu is Hugh’s latest venture and a different proposition from his other restaurants. Frustrated by London’s absence of “sandwiches like at home” and inspired by the popularity in the States of the banh mi baguette – an institution in New York and Vegas, I’m told – Hugh has created a deli dedicated to Vietnamese sandwiches. The banh mi actually dates back to French colonisation of Vietnam in the nineteenth century, hence the marriage of baguette with Asian fillings.
Open for just three weeks, Kêu! is already a hit with local lunchers, flogging 150 of the stuffed artisan baguettes a day. There’s also coffee from Exmouth Market’s Caravan and reams of Vietnamese products, such as Kewpie mayonnaise, lining the walls.
Sally Clarke and her resident baker Adrian Maccelari came on board to solve Hugh’s bread quandary. He wanted to develop a baguette that emulated the light crusty texture of Vietnamese banh mi without artificial improvers. The result is an artisan sourdough that’s of solid exterior but fluffy inside. For £4.50, choose from five fillings including belly pork, meatballs and BBQ mackerel. I had the latter, Hugh’s own creation: shreds of oily fish infused with lemongrass and accompanied by pickled cucumber, daikon and coriander.
Before waddling from my Vietnamese feast on Old Street, Hugh set the record straight about the different cuisines emanating from his home country. Northern cooking is known for its simplicity and demands exceptional (often local) ingredients, which has compromised its breakthrough outside Vietnam. In the south, where the weather is less changeable, the heat encourages the use of strong, often sweeter, flavours. So, what style does Hugh espouse? Both. With a family that moved from Hanoi to Saigon after the war, Hugh’s food interests straddle the two cuisines, making him especially qualified to reposition Vietnamese food in the UK.
Cây Tre, 301 Old Street, London EC1V 9LA. Tel: 020 7729 8662. Website.
Viet Grill, 58 Kingsland Road, London E2 8DP. Tel: 020 7739 6686. Website.
Kêu, 332 Old Street, London, EC1V 9DR. Cây Tre opens in Soho in May.