Char-grilled Quail at Song Que

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You notice two things on entering Song Que. Firstly, the Vietnamese cafe is hardly an elegant, haute cuisine establishment with smart design where you might expect one of the best eating experiences in London. Secondly, the place is simply heaving with people, crammed close together around tightly-packed tables.

Having tried this dish, I can appreciate why they’ve all come.

“the place is simply heaving with people”

The quail, grilled and chopped into quarters was crisp and moist without being greasy. It has a fairly light spicing that adds bite, but with attention to not competing with the tender flavour of the bird. It’s definitely a fingers-affair, where I feel no guilt at nibbling round the bones to get every last morsel. Quails aren’t famed for the quantity of the meat on them, so I’d definitely advise one each if you want more than a taste, and it would be a massive shame to waste any by politely picking at the dish with cutlery.

Served with a perfunctory garnish of lettuce, this isn’t going to satisfy someone looking for a perfectly presented dish, or a balanced starter… but I wouldn’t return to the restaurant and fail to order it.

Shredded Pork Summer Rolls at Café East

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Without Rachael’s watchful eye (she’d already eaten these rolls before we started the Chowdown Showdown), I broke the rules and ordered one portion of summer rolls between Tom and I. This turned out to be the right decision, since the size was extremely generous.

“Without Rachael’s watchful eye, I broke the rules”

For those who’ve only ever eaten Chinese spring rolls it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking Vietnamese summer rolls will be very similar. While they’re close in terms of approach – wrapping thinly sliced vegetables and/or meat or seafood into a sausage-shape, that’s where the proximity ends. Vietnamese rolls tend to be served cold (is that what makes them summer rolls?), with fresh, crisp ingredients, intended to be punchy with clear flavours embodying that country’s sweet, sour, salt culinary approach.

Café East’s are the perfect example of summer rolls. With a translucent skin of rice paper they are light and juicy – a far cry from the limp (or worse, greasy) versions you can end up suffering if unlucky. Shredded pork skin has a profile far nearer to beancurd skin than pork scratchings, and adds a smoky, salty hint to the various flavours of the rice and vegetables, rather than hogging the limelight.

Dipping in sweet chilli or tart vinegar only improves their palate-cleansing crispness. I’d happily make a meal of just these!

Classic beef pho at Cay Tre

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A big bowl of south-east Asian noodles is always warming and comforting, especially when you’re drenched in a sudden October shower. This bowl had the right mix of aromatic, sweet, and, with the addition of the red chilli served with other herbs on the side, heat. Hand-made noodles were a cut above the standard packet fare.

“I’d happily have a party at Cay Tre, with tastier food than, say, Wagamama. But would I rush back for this pho? Unclear.”

The star of the show was the beef. Some slices of grilled beef and some melting brisket were both spot on, and took on the fresh crispness of the broth while still being warm and luxurious.

I wasn’t terrible enamoured with the decision to serve a (huge) pile of herbs and beansprouts on the side. Perhaps I’m being a philistine (and, yes, I know many places serve pho in this way), but getting you to flavour your own stock seemed to shirk the responsibility of creating a delicious dish. This isn’t Koya with its amazing walnut miso concoction. Perhaps I should have just dumped my whole plate of herbs into the bowl, but anything else amounts to Mongolian hotpot, where the only one to blame if you don’t like the mix is yourself. This was only emphasized by one companion who fished out the onion, which had been served in the bowl.

The other downer was that I tried someone else’s spicy-garlicky pho, and thought that broth was really spectacular. In the end, I’d happily have a party at Cay Tre, with tastier food than, say, Wagamama. But would I rush back for this pho? Unclear.

71/100 top dishes on London

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