Cafe VN

Deep fried squid
144 Clerkenwell Road, London, EC1R 5DP 020 7278 4123

Like the proverbial buses, Vietnamese restaurants seem to be appearing all at once. For a long time, you had to travel to Shoreditch or Mare Street to get your Pho fix but now you can score a summer roll all over London.

Cafe VN is emblamatic of the new breed of Vietnamese style cafe-restaurants. Following the lead of Pho restaurant they are eschewing the canteen-like and or mock Indochina decor you find in most established joints in favour of a more contemporary feel. The menus are shorter too, but still cover the basics of summer rolls, bun cha and pho.

This little Clerkenwell cafe that occupies the space formerly known as Potempkin , a kidney shaped room looking out over Clerkenwell Road. The decor is verging on shopping mall food hall with white lino and formica everywhere.

The menu is short, sweet and covers the basics, and is well priced. Everything you expect to see is there, with one or two interesting extras like watermelon bubble tea. This is definitely more cafe than restaurant and is geared towards the lunchtime workers and evening students in the area.

Of the starters we had the summer rolls were fresh and tasty, but didn’t set the world alight. The squid though was very good. Deep fried in a light batter with some mild chillies on the side, it was tender and tasty. I would have preferred punchier chillies, but the ones accompanying added a nice fruity edge.

Bun Cha

Bun Cha, grilled belly pork and salad on cold rice noodles was decent. The pork was lightly sauced and lacked that crunchy bbq edge that bun cha should have. But it was tasty none the less. The dressing was tangy, a little spicy, but not quite pungent enough. The thicker than usual noodles were toothsome and textured and I’d return for those alone.

The spicy prawn soup – Bun Tom Hue I think – was okay, the stock was tasty, the prawns large, but the overall effect was a little insipid. It needed some more oomph in the form of chilli sauce to bring it alive.

Overall, although much of the above sounds negative, I would come back here again. This clearly isn’t aimed at hard core Vietnamese food fanatics, it’s a local Clerkenwell lunching spot and is savvy enough to tailor its food to match.

I’d go again if I were in the area as it is inexpensive (you can eat for under £10), and if you choose well, it can be pretty good. I wouldn’t cross London for it though.

8 Responses to “Cafe VN”

  1. Mr Noodles

    Good insights on the bun cha as you’re right that there should be more ‘charring’ on pork and that they used the wrong noodle. Bun is rice vermicelli so I’m not sure why they’re using a thicker ‘spaghetti-esque’ noodle. That said you liked the noodles which brings us to the debate of does authenticity matter if the dish tastes good ?

    PS: I know of Potemkin from when I worked in the area and I always wondered when it would go bust. Thing is I never saw anyone in there !

  2. The Grubworm

    @Mr Noodles – thanks! Good question re the wrong noodle and authenticity. I’m of the opinion that authenticity only matters if it’s a selling point of the food. Noone really trumpets about using corn oil instead of lard or beef dripping for frying chips after all. On the other hand, you wouldn’t go messing with the key parts of the dishes in Koya, because that’s all about authentic Udon noodles.

    Here, i think they’ve improved the dish by using spaghetti-width rice noodles.

    I was one of those who looked but didn’t visit, right from my first job in the area in 2003.

  3. Leluu

    I am not really sure as I will have to go and try but Central Vietnam uses thicker Bun – its best in Bun Bo Hue (Hue being the capital of the Central) – but thats a noodle soup. I haven’t had dry vermicelli dishes with thicker noodles before. Look forward to trying this place no matter what.

  4. The Grubworm

    @Leluu – interesting – are they spaghetti like in shape? If so, that could be what these are. It’s an interesting place, perfect if you’re in the area, but probably not worth too much of a journey.

  5. The Grubworm

    @Mr Noodles – Just read the post and those noodles look exactly like the ones they had in Cafe VN, maybe the chefs hail from a very northern part of Vietnam?

  6. Anh

    I think the noodles (Bun) is actually the last past you should worry about in Bun Cha. In Vietnam, the perfect Bun Cha however is judged by how well- seasoned the nuoc mam(the dressing as you called it) is. People go to particular place for Bun Cha because of the nuoc mam .As naive as it sounds everyone can make the cha ( the BBQ pork) and buy the Bun but what really brings out the flavor is the nuoc mam ( fish sauce) because this is where individual taste comes in. Normally, we ate with a bowl full of nuoc mam and the BBQ meat and you add the Bun slowly. For the noodles, the shape of the Bun varies between region but one common thing is it should be chewy yet soften when you dip into the nuoc mam.

  7. The Grubworm

    @Anh – that’s interesting. I remember the nuoc mam (ta for providing the right name) as being okay – much the same as the sauces i’ve had in other Vietnamese joints in London. Nothing like as pungently wonderful as the ones I tried in Hanoi though. As that is the strongest flavour, it makes sense that people would hunt down the place that makes the best.

    A cool insight into how people eat Bun – thanks :-)

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