‘When eating a fruit,’ so goes the Vietnamese proverb, ‘think of the person who planted the tree.’ And so, when a small glass bowl of skinned pomodorino tomatoes is presented to us, I’m mildly baffled by the man who produced these. Not so much the farmer in Italy (or indeed Kent) where they likely originated, but the chef busily scurrying away in the kitchen adjacent to us.
‘Funny sort of amuse bouche,’ Tom remarks, ‘can’t say I can think of many Vietnamese dishes featuring tomatoes…’. My dining companion, and fellow Arbuteer, gives them an inquisitive glance, and pops one in his mouth. His eyes light up. “But, by God, they’re good though!
These are chef Jeff Tan’s little creation. Bí Mật (or ‘secret’) tomatoes, they are blanched and infused at length in a ‘soup’ of ten herbs – I think it’s the herb combination that’s the ‘secret’ part – and are, according to Tan, his version of having a bowl of olives at the front of a meal. There’s also a saying in classical music that every composer writes one piece of music that only he/she could have produced. The same can be said for chefs. And these little nuggets of joy are Tan’s.
They are the catalyst to a meal that will both represent the best, and diverse, that Vietnamese cuisine has to offer. A clear statement that there is far more to it than the now ubiquitous Pho (pronounced fuh, to clear that up) and, by Tan’s hands, has achieved Michelin-starred status in the capital with the arrival of Go Viet.
Suggestions of the food are always established by the setting and, invariably, the more attention paid to the décor, the less paid to what’s on the plate. So we’re reassured, as we enter through a rain-soaked South Kensington summer evening, to find a minimalist enclave. No more than twenty covers on the ground floor, we’re ushered into a booth, made cosy by low hanging Asian-style lamps and terracotta colour scheme. There’s nothing to look at, so no distractions from what’s to come.
Over a lychee and lemongrass martini, alongside which the tomatoes arrive, we elect to be placed in chef Tan’s hands. Former Chef de cuisine at legendary Hakkasan, at which he was awarded his Michelin star, Go Viet is Tan’s follow-up to Soho’s VietFood, a bricks-and-mortar representation of Vietnam’s street food culture. And so begins what feels like a 10-course tasting menu.
It opens with a starter platter, featuring some classics (summer rolls with peanut sauce) but many new interests, such as diced beef Cha La Lot wrapped in betel leaf, carpaccio scallops in a chia seed dressing, and divine chargrilled lemongrass chicken skewers.
The flavours are all so distinctive. It’s why it makes Vietnamese a firm personal favourite; it’s more delicate and fragrant than Thai, cleaner and fresher than Chinese, not as rich as Malay, and represents a sort of healthy indulgence.
And for all my dismissiveness of pho – though, to be honest, I can’t get enough of it – it would be remiss for us not to opt for this seminal dish. But this is no ordinary bowl of soup noodles. It’s an event. Go Viet’s features wagyu beef, steeped in a marrow broth for 16 hours, with all the accoutrements, sliced chilli, beansprouts, limes and coriander, served on the side to be added and mixed as one might wish, personalizing the dish.
We share this in delicate bowls, as if it were a side dish, and accompanied by a range of other mains, presented with a sort of interactive finesse. There’s a lot of skewering and bespoking that goes on; the grilled lamb chops, for example, come with pipette ‘skewers’ of fish sauce, and the tiger prawns are impaled on stalks of lemongrass.
It might seem fussy – and certainly keeps the waiters busy, clearing multiple dishes – but it’s not. The participation is all part of the pleasure; hands darting, forks stabbing, fingers pinching, sprinkling, squeezing and scooping. With so many flavours, so many parts, and so much to enjoy, the meal is as much an experience as a meal itself.
This experience continues and concludes with the desserts. A trio of lemongrass jelly with finely diced pineapple and biscuit crumb – a sort of Vietnamese take on trifle – together with frozen chocolate mousse ‘rocks’ and a pandan sago. It’s a panoply of flavours and textures seldom experienced outside of Asia itself.
Our decision to place ourselves in chef’s hands seemed the best approach; with so much to choose from, thankfully Go Viet offers a Chef Tasting Menu removing the challenge of choice and replacing it with a ride through the country’s culinary pageantry, with some Michelin-starred twists.
A bowl of soup noodles might never be sufficient again.
Go Viet has also now launched their ‘Saigon Brunch’ at weekends. Served from 12pm to 5pm, the ‘Taste of Saigon’ menu is brilliant value at just £19.80 for two courses with a glass of wine, and not an avocado or poached egg in sight! For more information, visit www.vietnamfood.co.uk.