144 Clerkenwell Road, London, EC1R 5DP 020 7278 4123 www.cafevn.co.uk
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, 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.