Monday, 15 August 2011

Lunch @ Cây Tre Soho

Is the blingification of ethnic restaurants in Britain, a good or bad thing? Instinctively, I'm wary of trendy design-driven restaurants. Phrases like: 'style over substance', 'superficial and shallow' and 'should've spent the money on the kitchen', all spring to mind when I come across such places. But am I too hard on these trendy joints? And why?

To answer these questions, let's go back in time to the late 1980's. Way back then, the best Chinese restaurant in Manchester, quite possibly Britain, was reckoned to be Yang Sing. My family were regulars, and I remember enjoying many a fine dim sum session there, but then we stopped going. I'm not sure why, but I suspect that it was due to Pa Noodles feeling aggrieved that he was paying extra for interior design rather than for better food.

I've not been to Yang Sing in years, but from what I see on their website, it is spectacularly bling and spectacularly expensive. Suffice to say, one is more likely to see a footballer or soap star eating there than extended Chinese families. But is this a problem? It's a free country, and if I don't like it then I can lump it. Just quite what this has to do with Cây Tre, I will get to in a moment, I promise.

Fast forward twenty or so years, and I have my own run-in with blingification, at Viet Grill. This stylish Shoreditch restaurant is reckoned to be one of London's finest Vietnamese eateries, but I had a deeply unsatisfying time there. And try as hard as I might, I couldn't help but feel, rightly or wrongly, that the deficiencies in the kitchen were in someway connected to the uber-trendy interior design and flashy cocktail bar. So I can't say I was too excited when the restaurant group that operates Viet Grill and its sister restaurant, Cây Tre, opened a Soho branch of the latter.

But then I saw a very intriguing bowl of noodles on the menu: ox cheek au vin pho (phở sốt vang). Any negative thoughts of blingification were put to one side, and I popped along to Cây Tre for a spot of lunch. First impressions weren't great, as I thought the bowl was a bit on the small side for £9.50.

But appearances can be deceptive, as it was surprisingly filling with loads of ox cheeks – at least six, maybe seven chunky pieces. These cheeks were top class with tender strands of meat, but whilst perfectly braised, I thought the seasoning was a bit too subtle. That said, I'm using the citrusy anise notes of Cantonese braised beef brisket as a reference point, and this comparison may not be entirely fair.

By contrast, the broth had a great depth of flavour, and I wish there was more of it. The rice noodles were smooth and slippery, and I could have no complaints about the other toppings. The one thing that did perplex me was the whole chilli on the side. Not that the soup needed extra heat, but were you really expected to chop up the chilli yourself? Anyway, save for my blogger nitpicking, this was a mighty fine bowl of noodles, and one of the best that I've sampled in London in a long while.

Update 2 Nov 2011 – the ox cheek au vin pho has mutated into a strange almost stew like dish. Gone is the side plate of beansprouts, herbs and lime. Instead, the herbs are already in the bowl but the beansprouts have been replaced by more homely accompaniments in the form of potato and carrot. It's like the chef was inspired to tinker with this dish following a trip to Ireland. It's still tasty, but I think I will revert to more orthodox noodles on my next visit to Cây Tre.

Update 3 Nov 2011 In all fairness to Cây Tre, following a twitter exchange, they announced that they were tweaking the ox cheek au vin pho once more. The offending carrot and potato will be replaced by Thai basil and saw-tooth coriander respectively. I don't doubt their honesty, but do let me know if any rogue ingredients turn up in this, or any other, dish.

I also had some summer rolls w/steamed pork (gỏi cuốn lớn) to start. These were freshly made, and properly served at room temperature. Whilst tasty, I thought they were poor value at £5. And overall the one thing that did rankle was the price. With a drink and service, there was very little change from £20. It was at this point I also thought it a bit cheeky that for all their flashy décor, Cây Tre use disposable chopsticks.

That said, I have no problem forking out £9.50 for the ox cheek au vin pho. After all, you can't get a decent bowl of noodles at Wagamama for that price. Mind you, you can't get a decent bowl of noodles at Wagamama at any price!

So going back to my original question – is the blingification of ethnic restaurants, good or bad? Well, I've come to the conclusion that it's neither. It really isn't that important. Yes, there are some bling places that take the piss, but there are plenty that don't. Without really giving their menu a proper going over, I'm not sure which category Cây Tre falls into. Mind you, if the rest of the menu is as good as the ox cheek au vin pho then I'm willing to give this temple of bling the benefit of the doubt.

Cay Tre Soho on Urbanspoon

Cây Tre, 42-43 Dean Street, London W1D 4QD (Tel: 020-7317-9118)
Nearest tube: Leicester Square, Tottenham Court Road


  1. The Ox cheek Pho does sound rather intriguing. But at £9.50p for a small bowl does tske the mick a bit, but sometimes it is worth paying the extra for quality.
    Wagamama is only good for their katsu curry's.

  2. I know it's technically not a noodle but you've got to go back and try the aubergine starter, it's DA BOMB. and also the frogs legs!

  3. Mzungu - it is worth it at £9.50, but I'm not sure I'd pay much more for it. In fairness, it was deceptively filling. Not been to Wagamama's in many a year - I was quite partial to their chilli men dish in a guilty pleasure trashy way.

    catty - can't beat a bit of aubergine - I'll be sure to check it out when I return for a proper dinner.

  4. It's not the blingification that irks me, it's the price hike for what is essentially street food, or food that is supposed to be cheap, when it isn't any better.

    I went to Cay Tre in Soho and left feeling really pissed off indeed when we spent £40 on lunch for two, 1 drink only, and I would have got a better pho at Cafe East.

  5. Lizzie - I know what you mean. I doubt very much I would've gone to Cay Tre but for the ox cheek pho.

  6. Nothing wrong with blingfication as long as the food is good and the prices aren't inappropriate. Out here in KL we wouldn't begrudge a couple extra bucks for airconditioning! One excellent example of this is the Lot 10 Hutong ( where hawker stalls have been housed to this fancy mall. They have to have had a lineage of worthy street food to qualify:)

    Viet Grill is yummo!

  7. Hungry Female - Lot 10 Hutong does look good, and at the end of the day, it is the food that matters! However, I have to disagree with you on Viet Grill - I had a shocker when I went.

  8. Mr Noodles, do you have any plans to visit Nam which is nearby? Since their Pho is only £4.90 It would be interesting to compare. Ditto Viet Noodle Bar.

  9. kamina888 - I have no plans to visit Nam in Soho, but if I'm around then I might pop in. After all, it's cheap as chips. I have been to Viet Noodle Bar but many years ago before I was blogging. Perhaps, time for a revisit too. Thanks for the hints.

  10. Hi Mr Noodles

    I was forwarded your blog and found it really interesting! I'm actually one of the team at the Yang Sing in Manchester and also British born chinese so Im keen to explore the assimilation of my Chinese roots and British upbringing. This incorporates very traditional concerns of authentic flavours and fresh ingredients, with an aesthetic sensibility.

    I love street food, and have spent a lot of time in Asia- the spiritual home of street food. However, there is a time and place for all, I eat out a lot, on kingsland road I always go to Mien tay- theyre amazing! But equally I'll go for dinner at Zuma or sketch. It depends on the mood and the company or occasion I think.

    At the Yang Sing, I'd like to think we have a very comfortable dining room, we're a restaurant for every occasion, from family get togethers, low key lunches as well as special events. In terms of decor, it is certainly less traditional than some of our neighbours but we also look after our guests very well and try to go the extra mile.

    Our head chef and proprieter- Harry, is as hands on in the kitchen today as he was when he started off in 1977, and we work very hard to maintain the quality and authenticity of food. It is a fine line between pleasing our chinese demographic and our British clientelle but I hope that the next time you are up in manchester you will come in and see us again, give us a tweet (@yangsingmcr)and let me know your thoughts or comments! I'm always interested in hearing opinions! Love the blog!

    1. BonnieSue - welcome! Thank you for your comments. I agree it is difficult to please all the people all of the time. And as I pointed out in the post, I've come to the conclusion that as long as the food delivers and it isn't bad value for money.

      It's been many years since my last visit to Yang Sing so I may just give it a try the next time I'm up North. Whether I can persuade Pa Noodles to come with me is another matter, though!