If you’re Vietnamese and you don’t like Pho, there’s definitely something wrong with your genetic make up. Pronounced ‘FUH’, pho is Vietnam’s national dish and the thought of that single syllable makes my stomach grumble with longing.
Pho’s concept is simple: make a fully-balanced meal fit into a single bowl. The main components are rice noodles, broth and some sort of protein - beef or chicken or seafood, sometimes tripe or meatballs or a combination of different meats and broth. The protein goes into the bowl raw and cooks when the boiling hot broth that has been simmering for some hours is poured over it. The broth varies in strength and flavour depending on the region of Vietnam, often containing spices and herbs like cinnamon and ginger, coriander seed and clove. Once served, the consumer can then season it to their own personal taste with condiments like chilli, spring onions and fresh herbs.
When Monsieur and I were preparing for our trip to Vietnam, pho seemed to pop up everywhere. It was mentioned in all the guides, in online reviews, in restaurant recommendations, and if you look up ‘pho’ on You Tube, you’ll find the likes of Anthony Bourdain trying it out in Ho Chi Minh City and amateur pho chefs demonstrating step-by-step instructions on how to make pho at home. Once in Vietnam, Monsieur and I and enjoyed authentic pho on several occasions, marvelling at the regional subtleties and the many ways in which the simple concept of a meal in a bowl may be interpreted.
The Vietnamese say that Pho is their equivalent of chicken noodle soup. It’s an anti-viral cold-preventative, hangover cure and all-round comfort food. For all of these reasons and because Pho simply tastes good, Epic is a great, big pho fan.
Back in March of this year I was lucky enough to be invited to a food bloggers’ event at a restaurant specialising in pho, called, not surprisingly, Pho. There are now four restaurants in the Pho chain; we went to the one in Great Titchfield Street. There, in a bright basement, we were treated to welcome drinks, including wine or Hue beer, a popular Vietnamese brew. It was Hue all the way for me after that.
First up, we enjoyed learning to make our own summer rolls. I wasn’t exactly adept at this (mine resembled more of a lopsided sausage factory reject than a neat little roll), but I did enjoy eating the results.
And this is what the staff work so hard to produce – vat upon steaming vat of bubbling hot broth.
Back at our very long table, the crowd was like a Who’s Who of London food bloggers, which made for passionate conversation about who’s cooking/eating what, where to shop for the best ingredients and which chefs we rate or otherwise. There were collective aaahs of approval as we nibbled on our summer rolls and dipped into the share platters of Vietnamese salads. Outside it was dark, cold and rainy. Inside at Pho we could taste summer in the fresh papaya salad, delving for the fat prawns in its midst. This platter, called Goi Du Du in Vietnamese, is sprinkled with chopped peanuts and served with prawn crackers. Everything (apart from the prawns) crunched in a satisfying way: the batons of papaya, the strips of capsicum, the peanuts, the crackers. It was a welcome antidote to the misery of March weather.
At last, the moment came when we could taste the pho of our choice. On the menu was quite a list of pho varieties – served with steak or brisket, or both, with meatballs, chicken or prawns or a couple of vegetarian versions with tofu or mushrooms. I had Pho Tom – more fat tiger prawns served in chicken stock.
The bowls come with special ladle-like spoons and a selection of condiments with which to bespoke your pho: Vietnamese coriander (which looks like mint but tastes completely different), beansprouts, chilli and lime.
Here’s my bowl of glory, steaming away merrily.
The broth was piping hot, the prawns tender and plump with juice. Lots of happy slurping went on around the table that night and the general consensus was that Pho was modern, affordable, with the freshest of ingredients and therefore definitely had its place in London.
Following the spring rolls, salad, a bowl of Pho and a couple of Hues, I was overflowing with good things and had zero capacity for dessert, which was a shame because the Pho menu boasts banana fritters, pandan pancakes and fresh fruit sorbets with flavours like strawberry with fresh basil. I did, however, cave in to the offer of an iced Vietnamese coffee made with condensed milk. I know, I know, it sounds odd, but it’s like a Vietnamese frappuccino and they’re really quite addictive.
So with a round and happy belly I bade farewell to the warm Pho staff and foodie friends, toddling off in the rain in search of an elusive cab, smile on face, with a stomachful of Pho. Methinks that Pho isn’t just the Vietnamese cure-all comfort food, but Vietnamese prozac in a bowl, for it shifts my mood to happy every time.
For further details about the London branches of Pho, go to: www.phocafe.co.uk
Tonight is Burns Night, the celebration of the birthday of Scotland’s favourite poet, Robert Burns. (To learn more about Burns Night, see my previous post, here.) To prepare us for this important event, Qype arranged a wonderful evening for Qypers, at Salt Bar in London’s Marble Arch. There, we were to taste three single malt whiskies, courtesy of Talisker, one of the proud single malt whisky labels owned by drinks giant, Diageo.
Needless to say, what with escaping the demands of work and dealing with slow public transport, I was late. I missed the piper who piped beautiful Scottish sounds into this Edgware Road bar. I missed the Address to a Haggis, with sharpened dirk ready to slice into the swollen ball that is a haggis. I missed the smoked salmon blinis that accompanied the Talisker 10 Year Old. But that was all. In true Epicurienne style, and knowing already a thing or two about Burns Night, I caught up quickly once I arrived.
As I entered the ground floor space at Salt Bar I noticed that it was filled with a great many pairs of eyes fixed on a man called Colin. Ah, my fellow Qypers. What a gluttonous bunch we are. Mention food, whisky, cocktails or something else worthy of placing in one’s mouth and you have our full attention. I knew I was in the right place.
Jo from Grayling sped the second whisky of three across to me as I tentatively encroached on the otherwise full bar. You see, Colin was in full swing. Our whisky coach for the evening, he was expounding on the virtues of Talisker. Right now we were sipping on drams of Talisker Distiller’s Edition – a delightful mouthful of deep sm0kiness. Colin told us that it had tones of Muscatel, dates and stewed fruits. All I could taste was a whisky-imbued smokehouse. As I like smoked fish, smoked cheese, smoked ham – this was a very good way to start the evening for this particular latecomer, but I obviously need to work on my whisky palate.
As my fellow Qypers tucked into beautifully-presented rounds of haggis layered with neeps and tatties, I headed once more for Grayling P.R.’s Jo Seymour-Taylor.
“I was late, I know. I’m sorry about that. But do you think I could try the first Talisker? Just so that I can compare.” I asked.
Jo was charm personified, whizzing off to the bar to find me a dram of the whisky I’d missed. When she returned, I sipped on the Talisker Ten Year Old, and sighed.
“It’s very good, a bit salty, still smoky…” I told her, “but the Distiller’s Edition has spoilt me. I enjoyed it so much that this now doesn’t seem half as wonderful as it would without comparison.” Impractical though it may be, I’ve always had expensive tastes.
Jo smiled at my honesty, turning to introduce me to a surprise – the calligrapher named Paul. There he sat, patient with pen and ink as he inscribed hardback notebook after notebook for every guest.
“What’s your name?” he asked, and so I told him, and a few minutes later, my notebook lay amongst the others left to dry. What a superb touch, I thought. To invite people who like to write to an event and then to give them something in which to write! That’s what I call consideration of your audience.
Next, I was introduced to Colin, our expert for the evening. I explained I’d arrived late as I’d had to cross town and he simply replied “shall I teach you how to taste whisky, then?”
I held my glass of the third and final Talisker for the evening - Talisker 57 degrees North, named for the location of the distillery and also its alcohol content (ouch), and followed Colin’s instructions. I placed my hand over the glass and swilled it in circles. Lifting my hand I sniffed and oh my sainted trousers, what an aroma there was now, thanks to all that swilling releasing fumes enough to entice a pack of single-malt – loving hounds from across the nearest three neighbourhoods.
“Now sip, but do not swallow.” Colin was a firm tasting master.
“Move the whisky around your mouth for fourteen seconds.” We counted. Obviously my counting was done in my head, lest I spurt good single malt across my new friends.
“When you get close to fourteen, the flavours will explode in your mouth,” Colin told me. And so they did. It was veritably difficult to hold it in without becoming a human fountain of whisky, but the increase in flavours was worth the heat now pervading my mouth.
“I taste everything like this,” Colin admitted, “Whisky, wine, spirits. This is how you find the true taste of a drink.” Well, I’m a convert. That Talisker 57 Degrees North was something else. It wasn’t exactly sweet, nor was it as robust as the first Talisker of the evening, nor as smoky as the second. Yet there remained hints of smokiness with a touch of peat and citrus. Ah, the citrus was what paired it so well with the final solids of the evening: chocolate mousse, elegantly served in flutes.
Colin was not done with me yet, though.
“Pour a little of the whisky onto the mousse,” he suggested, and I did so obediently. The next mouthful of smooth chocolate had a heady enhancement of whisky. And why not? My mother makes fabulous chocolate mousse laced with Cointreau. Single malt fabulosity drizzled on chocolate mousse was not something I’d tried before, yet it tasted oh so very right. Thank you, Colin. I’m now hooked on chocolate mousse with whisky. How’s that for a new vice?
The next person with whom I chatted was the manager of Salt Bar, an amiable chap called Vansi Putta. We marvelled together at the display of whisky bottles around the bar. Some names were familiar: Glenmorangie, Glenfiddich, Laphroaig, Cragganmore and Dalwhinnie. Others, made me smile with their funny Scottish names, especially Knockando!!
Vansi explained that Salt Bar has a whisky specialism, and they even provide Whisky Tours. For instance, for £25.00 you can go from the Highlands (Clynelish 14 yrs) to the Lowlands (Auchentoshan 10 yrs) to Campbelltown (Springbank 10 yrs) and Islay (Caol Ila 12 yrs) via none other than Speyside (Macallan 10 yrs fine oak).
If you want to go international, you can try Glenfiddich Solaro Reserve from Scotland, Bushmills 3 Wood 16 years from Ireland, Suntory Yamazaki 18 years from Japan, Monkey Shoulder vatted malt and a good ol’ Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel from the States. That will set you back a cool £35.00 a head, but oh, what a journey.
By now I just had time for one of the Talisker cocktails on offer, so chose the Cool Walker. The recipe goes like this:
40 ml Talisker 10 yrs old
15 ml Drambuie
10 ml Lime Juice
10 ml Gomme
Add ingredients to Boston Glass, shake and strain into highball glass filled with ice. Top with ginger ale.
My, if I’d enjoyed the Talisker drams of earlier, this was a very pleasant surprise. I’d just been telling Colin how my parents have always recommended taking single malt neat, to get the true flavour. But here was a cocktail made with a single malt and it was refreshing enough to drink in summer. So perhaps from now on I won’t view whisky as a drink for the snow days.
On the way out, the guests all received a goodie bag, filled with Talisker treats. There was a small bottle of Talisker 10 Year Old, a Talisker tumbler in which to drink our Talisker, the beautifully inscribed notebook and…
a book to help us celebrate Burns Night in true Scottish style by Burns Night expert, Clark McGinn, who’d earlier read the Address to A Haggis and proffered his dirk:
So, with at least fifty per cent of me coming from The Land of Wee Kilties, tonight I’ll have me a wee haggis, a wee tumbler filled wi’ a wee dram o’ Talisker, and a few mouthfuls of neeps and tatties. But in the interests of keeping my waistline, I might pass on the choccy mousse and save it for special occasions.
Happy Burns Night to you ALL!!!
**Portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, 1787: 2 years before the French Revolution and 11 years after the United States of America won its independence from England. This is one of the best known likenesses of Rabbie Burns and hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
Burns Night is a timely evening to beat the Northern Hemisphere January blues, when every UK day starts as dark as night and the sun sets at a depressing 4.30pm. Celebrated on 25 January, Burns Night is a particularly special time for Scots, when they remember the birthday of their esteemed poet and fellow countryman, Robert or ‘Rabbie’ Burns (1759-1796).
A traditional Burns Night event will kick off with a few wee drams (small measures) of something toasty like a good single malt whisky, which serves both to warm the extremities and to lubricate the tonsils of those bold enough to recite some lines of fine Scottish literature for their friends, often from the works of Burns himself. Then, moving to the table, the Selkirk Grace may be said before the starter is served.
“Some hae meat and canna eat, And some wad eat that want it; But we hae meat, and we can eat, And sae the Lord be thankit.”
“Some have meat and cannot eat, Some cannot eat that want it; But we have meat and we can eat, So let the Lord be thankit.”
Next, if you happen to know someone who deafened the neighbourhood with bagpipe practice sessions whilst growing up, you would hopefully forget past pain and ask them nicely to attend your Burns Night Supper to pipe in the haggis to one of those famed kilt-swinging tunes, like Brose and Butter. If you don’t happen to have such a friend, you can always book a piper for the night (although I’d recommend doing so well in advance as this is one of the busiest nights of a pro-piper’s year). Where a piper is either unavailable or unattainable, you could always play a CD of a good solo piper. If you choose the latter, I would definitely advise avoiding recordings where guitars and/or brass bands are involved. It won’t provide the same sort of atmosphere.
As the piper plays, the chef will carry the haggis with great reverence to the table, where it is set before the host/ess on a plate called The Groaning Trencher. Then the guest with the greatest penchant for dramatics and vocal cords loosened by a quick few drams will speak to the haggis with Burns’ poem, aptly named ‘Address To A Haggis’.
The mere mention of haggis is enough to make many a grown man squirm, once they understand that it consists of a sheep’s stomach bag, stuffed with the sheep’s liver, lungs and heart, which have been blended with onions, suet, oatmeal and stock. In spite of sounding like a murder scene, it’s really rather tasty, although there is a growing demand for vegetarian versions containing kidney beans, lentils, nuts and vegetables in place of the bodily remains of a former sheep and somehow, I don’t think it’s only vegetarians who might opt for the vege version; the thought of eating a literal stomach full of offal could be understandably off-putting, even to a hardy carnivore.
The usual way to serve a haggis is with neeps and tatties, which to all the non-Scots among my readers translates as mashed turnips or swede (the neeps) and mashed potatoes (the tatties).
Prior to serving, the haggis is ceremonially sliced open with a lethal-looking knife called a dirk, as the piper, chef and performer of the Address receive a thank you dram of good Scottish whisky. Some people pour a little whisky onto their serving of haggis to add to the flavour whilst purists steer clear of such practices, preferring to keep their haggis and whisky quite separate and unadulterated. Either way, the haggis forms the focus of the event that is Burns’ Night.
As whisky and ale flows and wallflowers find the (Dutch) courage to stand up and sing or recite a wee bit of Burns, the evening will progress in a warm haze, and perhaps some fun will be had as the group takes to the floor for some group dancing, known by those from north of Hadrian’s Wall as ‘reeling’ which, after a few exhausting rounds of the room, you will be. And so it is that Burns Night is celebrated to a greater or lesser degree in Scotland and wherever in the world the Scots have dispersed. To illustrate the importance of Burns Night, according to recent analysis of the Burns Economy, there are currently around 10,000 Burns Night Suppers held internationally, a statistic which I personally consider to be conservative. In any case that means that come Tuesday of next week, all over the world there will be many, many thousands of sore heads.
To prepare us for the possibilities of this year’s Burns Night, earlier this week a group of Qypers was invited to a Burns event at Salt Bar in London’s Marble Arch, courtesy of Talisker single malt whiskies. It was a fascinating evening, with excellent whiskies, food, experts and calligraphy. My next post will tell you how it all went, so tune in for more Burns Night fun, including how to get the most out of your dram and mouth-watering suggestions for matching whisky with food.
In the meantime:
- There are eight stanzas to Burns’ ‘Address To A Haggis’ and it takes some working out if you’re not accustomed to reading Scots, so here’s a link to a truly comprehensive Burns site, where the hard words have a multi-lingual glossary attached to them – just click on the troublesome word, which is highlighted, to find its meaning. http://www.robertburns.org/works/147.shtml)
- Did you know that Rabbie Burns wrote ‘Auld Lang Syne’, which so many of us, Scots and non-Scots alike, sing on New Year’s Eve?
- Did you know that Rabbie Burns died of a heart condition at the age of 37? His youngest son, Maxwell, was born that same day.
- In 2009 an STV survey of the public found Rabbie Burns to be The Greatest Scot. Well done, Rabbie! Now, that’s what I call cause for celebration.
I’ve been reviewing a lot for Qype recently – a site where real people review what’s hot and what’s not in their hometown or in places they visit. I’m having a lot of fun remembering some of my best (and worst) meals, and learning a lot more about what’s going on in this hectic city; don’t you find it’s too easy to take living in a place for granted, thus forgetting to make an effort to do/see/visit what a visitor would? I certainly do, but one hometown that I could never take for granted is Venice.
Put simply, Venice blew my mind when I lived there as a student intern in the mid-nineties. It seeped into my veins in the time I was there and left its indelible watery mark, to the point where I am now writing a book about it. Naturally, when I found out that well-travelled Monsieur had never been to Venice, I was in shock; it became a priority to ensure he knew about doges and Bellinis (the artists, not the drink!) and how to cross canals without slipping in greasy dog poop, so off we went for a wintry weekend and it was then that we came across one of my favourite restaurants in the world. Here’s what I wrote for Qype:
When I lived in Venice, it took a while to seek out the truly good eateries that didn’t have point-and-eat menus in multiple languages, or charge the earth for mediocre offerings. Unfortunately for me back then, I didn’t find Algiubagio, even though it’s been run by the same family for 50 odd years. On a more recent visit to Venice, Monsieur and I stayed at a hotel on the Fondamente Nuove, looking out across the lagoon at San Michele, however, when we arrived it was late at night and not many places in the vicinity were still serving food. We were starving so the hotel receptionist pointed us a few doors down the Fondamenta to Algiubagio. This was to be one of the best dining experiences I’ve ever had in Venice make that Italy.
In spite of our lateness, the staff were welcoming and a waiter who’d once worked in London carefully guided us through the menu. We chose a starter selection platter to kick off with, including a most unusual mix of tastes, from carpaccio of reindeer to a spoonful of creamy cheese from the Veneto topped with slices of lagoon-grown grapes. The carbon footprint of most of the food served at Algiubagio is low, because wherever possible, they use local produce. Even the olive oil, pressed by a firm called Planeta, was out of this world – probably hence the name. We fought over the trofie, small handmade twirls of pasta, simply drizzled with oil and tossed with cherry tomatoes, diced mozzarella, just warm without melting, and rocket, and I tried their juicy wild duck breast, which was flavoured in a semi-Asiatic way with aromatic spices. The menu boasts Argentinian Angus beef in a number of tempting guises, including one fillet served with apple and chocolate sauce. If you’re into beef and can forget about food miles for a moment, this is an Algiubagio signature dish.
Vegetarians won’t be left out in the cold, however; there is plenty of choice: a number of fresh salads, various warm vegetable dishes and pastas.
In spite of the richness of the dishes on Algiubagio’s menu, the prices are varied to suit wallets of different sizes. For instance, the wine list, which typically features local wine, starts at 14 Euros per bottle – not bad for pricey Venice.
In addition to formal dining, Algiubagio offers informal daytime snacks of tramezzini sandwiches or pastries and rich coffee from their bar overlooking the lagoon. When Monsieur and I grabbed a quick breakfast here on our way to explore the sights, it was apparent that this place is no secret from the locals; they flock here for their morning repast and the latest local gossip. On summer evenings the terrace is littered with candlelit tables, from which diners enjoy gazing out at the islands of the lagoon and passing water traffic, whilst in winter the dining room is warmly lit, providing a comforting respite from the chill Venetian air.
The building in which Algiubagio is located used to be a boat-house, or barchessa, which you can see from its long, low structure, but has been sensitively refurbished to provide a traditional feel with modern accents. The kitchen is open to the dining room, which I always appreciate because it shows that the chefs have nothing to hide, with the sort of modern extractor hood that is so modern and metallic that you wouldn’t be surprised if it took off skyward. The open kitchen also provides added entertainment for the patrons, if they enjoy watching pans flick and flames flash in the preparation of their food, like I do.
The staff were attentive and helpful and multi-lingual and knew the menu from experience. They’d tasted the food and not once did our questions about some of the unusual combinations send them off in search of an answer; they knew all the answers. Trust me on this: much to Monsieur’s mortification I ask a LOT of questions in restaurants that pique my interest, so the Algiubagio staff thoroughly earned this compliment. On our second and third visits, a waiter remembered us, appearing with flutes of complimentary prosecco as we were seated and chatting with us about our day treading the stones of Venice before launching into a confident recital of the day’s specials. Impressive.
Algiubagio has passed The Monsieur and Epic 3x test; we visited the restaurant three times during our last stay. It has also passed the recommended-to-a-friend test; when a colleague visited Venice I insisted she try Algiubagio and she was so thrilled by her experience that she brought me back a gift.
For all of the above reasons, Algiubagio is a must-try restaurant; it’s almost worth booking a weekend in Venice to eat here and the mere writing of this post makes my itch to return almost unbearable.
Last night I joined fellow bloggers for another rendezvous of the London Bloggers Meetup Group. After some humming and hah-ing about which venue to assemble at, we found ourselves back at the Coach & Horses in Soho, for a night of blog-ducation.
M3Mobile sponsored the evening, buying beers for the first twenty-ish people. I must (typically) have been number 21 to arrive because there were no beers for me and the upstairs wine was £5.75 a glass! (Didn’t realise at the time that we weren’t supposed to bring drinks up from the downstairs bar, so I avoided the queue and did just that. The downstairs wine was cheaper by far! Later on in the ‘Naughty Corner’, as we dubbed the tiny upstairs terrace, we wine drinkers had a therapeutic moan about that. We need to corner a wine sponsor!) Almost immediately I managed to meet Barbara, one of the bloggers on my must-meet list. She runs a company called Glocal Travel specialising in sustainable travel to Mexico and blogs about it. She’s up for an award so congratulations on the nomination, Barbara!
I also chatted with Chris, who blogs about music and must meet The Plummet Onions writer, Tim, who was at a gig last night so unable to join us. Then there was Mehrdad, a photographer who is also web-design-techy enough to give me good advice about how to get help jazzing up this site so it doesn’t look so WordPress-y anymore so thank you to him. Kate, who blogs for cheapeats told us about a wonderful Thai in Waterloo. Apparently its looks belie the tasty food to be had inside for a song. Kate – when you read this, please would you send me the name again?
Then Andy introduced the first of our Blog School lecturers, Xavier Damman, who told us all about his brainchild, Commentag, a tag filtering plugin that helps organise your discussions and displays tag clouds for your comments. “If you have no tags, you have no visibility,” he told us. “And if you make a comment that receives no response, it’s a waste of time.” Well, yes and no. I think it depends on what you want to get out of your blog.
Next, Improbulus took the floor to talk about her blog which receives upward of 2000 hits a day. Here’s some of her advice for us blog-folk:
- The title is important. Use good words in the title to capture your audience’s attention.
- The first 55-60 words should contain the key words relating to that post.
- When tagging, use synonyms, UK AND US spelling, singular and plural forms, and when words could appear as one, two or hyphenated, use all forms. As one blogger pointed out, this is often sorted out for you automatically by the search engine.
- Link OUT, especially to Wikipedia. This encourages discussion.
- Multi-link the same reference to Wikipedia and one or two other sites.
- Refer to previous posts. You don’t have to do the “click here” method each time; you can highlight key words and link them instead.
- When you get your own domain name it will take a while to build up your readership under the new name so if you’re intending to change, do it sooner rather than later.
- A single comment feed for the entire blog helps raise traffic.
- Specialisation tends to help. (although some disagreed with this point. As one chap said, it depends on what you’re looking for.)
- Use Friendfeed to aggregate all your activities, such as Twitter.
- Frequency of publishing is important.
- Write posts ahead and build up your stock.
- Re: Google Adsense, put the Google search box on the blog. Most of Improbulus’s revenue comes from the box, not ads.
After a quick break for a chat with our new best friends (cue Jed and a crowd from Qype), we had further presentations from Tony Scott about the upcoming Wordcamp UK and M3 about their product. Then it was time for me to go, or so I thought, only somehow I ended up (yet again) putting the world to rights with Tony, Andy Roberts DARNETand Tony’s friend, Tim, over some extra beverages. We talked about the blogging evening, whether or not marriage is a valid institution, Wordcamp, the meaning of smirting and new age festivals.
That’s what I love best about these evenings: how many conversations you can have about completely unrelated topics with people you’ve only just met. I went home with a handful of new Moo cards and a head full of ideas. Thank you again, Andy Bargery, for organising the event. I will be back.
PS Do you think I squeezed enough tags into this post???
The next London Bloggers Meetup will be on 29th July at 7.30pm, venue TBC