Full disclosure. Miss Rachelle from Qype invited me to this bloggers' event for which I received free food and drink over the course of the evening. Such a get-together is never going to replicate the experience of being a paying customer so please read on with that in mind.
Pho has three London branches, Clerkenwell (the original), Westfield Shopping Centre, and Oxford Circus, where this event was held. Further branches in Brighton and Soho will open later this year. I hadn't been here before as I was a bit sceptical about what on the face of it seemed to be a high street chain cashing in on the trend for Vietnamese food.
Not for the first time, my preconceptions were a bit off the mark, as Pho isn't run by some faceless corporate behemoth but by a couple. Stephen and Juliette Wall gave up the drudgery of the nine-to-five to follow their dream of opening a café inspired by their travels in Vietnam. For those of you staring at the elephant in the room, they've hired Vietnamese kitchen crews to do the actual cooking.
Truth is, you'd have to be made of stone not to be inspired by their story or to warm to their enthusiasm. The other thing I have to mention is that like me, Stephen is from the North West of England, where we're renowned for our intelligence, keen sense of humour, and generous spirit. Not to mention our modest self-deprecating manner.
Now heartwarming tales about living the dream are all well and good but what about the food? A quick look at the menu is encouraging as it's pretty much 100% Vietnamese with no faddy interpretations of classic dishes. We kicked off with starters such as salads (goi), summer rolls (goi cuon), spring rolls (cha gio), and grilled pork & lemongrass meatballs (nem nuong). But before we tucked in, we had a stab at making one of my favourites, summer rolls. Thankfully, my effort tasted better than it looked!
I can't get over excited about salad and spring rolls but both were freshly made and clean tasting. However, I did find the nem nuong meatballs incredibly moreish with the lemongrass giving a contrast in both taste and texture to the pork.
In between starters and mains, we had a quick tour of the kitchen where the highlight was a giant vat of beef stock. When the lid was lifted, the kitchen was filled with a beefy aroma infused with star anise.
As Pho specialises in pho, I had to go for pho noodles with beef stock, steak, brisket and meatballs (pho bo dac biet). Now, I may have had my expectations raised by the giant vat of stock but I thought the soup lacked a bit of oomph. It wasn't quite as beefy as the pho from Song Que (my favourite Vietnamese in London) and I added more chillies than I normally would. Of the three types of beef, the brisket was my favourite with its melt in the mouth texture. I also liked the meatballs and whilst there was nothing wrong with the steak, I'd probably give it a miss if I came here again.
I also adore bun dishes so being a greedy sod in the interest of research, I sampled some cold rice vermicelli topped with salad, herbs, spring roll, peanuts and lemongrass chicken (bun cha gio ga). This was served with nuoc cham, a spicy fish sauce based dressing and it was a decent bowl of bun. A minor gripe was that there weren't enough noodles but this was a sample bowl and I'm sure you'd get more in a normal sized bowl. By the way, their normal sized bowl is quite large – perhaps this is Stephen's influence, as Northerners don't really do small portions.
After more than my fair share of starters, two bowls of noodles and several beers came dessert. I plumped for a refreshing strawberry and fresh basil sorbet. Others went for banana fritters - which I had nibble on - to round off the meal. I'm not really a dessert man but these were all fine.
All in all, it was a top night out and it was good to meet other bloggers, many for the first time. Our hosts were charming and convivial as were the PR peeps. But one question remains – would I come back here as a paying customer?
Well I wouldn't describe Pho as a destination for Vietnamese cuisine as that's obviously the 'Pho Mile', which is located in that part of town where Shoreditch becomes Hoxton. That said if I was out and about around Oxford Circus then I'd happily pop in here for a bowl of noodles.