I have lived a stone’s throw away from “Pho Mile”, a stretch
of East London’s Kingsland Road famous for its amazing range of authentic and
cheap Vietnamese restaurants, for nearly 4 years, yet am ashamed to say have
only once or twice sampled what many people travel across London for.
There are several reasons for this. Firstly, before I
discovered my love for Thai food, mainly via Rosa’s Thai Café’s fantastic
offering, I was quite narrow-minded it when it came to South East Asian food,
with Vietnamese cuisine never really being something I wanted to explore
further, most likely because I was yet to experience it’s best flavours.
Secondly a lot of the restaurants on “Pho Mile” aren’t
exactly interior hotspots. I mean yes, they tend to be super authentic and run
by Vietnamese families but these families have run these restaurants for years
so dining rooms can be a little, let’s say, basic. Most restaurants are BYOB
which is great and the food they serve is cheap but equally it also means it’s all
about a quick table turnaround. Add in not taking reservation and you get the
gist why I just hadn’t really bothered when I guess I could also stay in and
order something or cook.
Of course, I knew I was generalising and maybe being a
little harsh, there are a good dozen of restaurants on or near the “mile”, all varying
immensely in terms of quality of food offered as well as dining environment,
and I couldn’t help but become intrigued by a relatively recent addition to the
strip.. BúnBúnBún. It was not just the modern neon sign outside and bright
dining room with wooden benches inside that looked but I had also spotted some
of my favourite foodie Instagram accounts posting about BúnBúnBún more than a
couple of times and I realised I may have been missing a trick by not checking
out potential dinning gem, located basically in my front yard.
No doubt the BYOB element was also appealing during this
very long and expensive January, which is why two of my friends were more than
up for checking out BúnBúnBún on a recent Friday night, and after a few glasses
at my house we headed over there around 8:30pm. A few things to note- you can’t
book but we were able to wait at their dessert / bubble tea café next door so
didn’t have to brave the cold or stand around in the busy restaurant. We were
given a number and ended up waiting about 25 minutes, wine in hand, ready to be
seated. BúnBúnBún does actually sell wine and beers (wine being around £19 a
bottle) but with a Sainsbury’s only a couple of doors down and a corkage charge
of £4 a person, you are still better off getting a bottle yourself, hard pushed
to spend more than a tenner including the corkage on booze, which is great for
The dining room is of course not exactly of a fine dining
standard, its tight, bustling and full of people happily slurping down their
pho and I loved it for that, no pretences, cosy and a great place to gossip
with your friends. Service was super efficient, sometimes a little too
efficient, clearing plates before we had finished, but nonetheless friendly and
full of helpful tips of what to order.
The menu is vast so be prepared to be spoiled for choice and
portions are huge, all at a very decent price. I recommend you order a range of
starters to share with your fellow diners- we had an outstanding, and huge, papaya
salad with prawns (and boy those prawns were juicy and fresh), prawn summer
rolls with a delicious peanut dip and even more prawns in the form of crispy
tempura salt and chilli prawns.
For mains the choice was even harder. BúnBúnBún specialises
in Bún vermicelli noodle salads- steamed rice noodles and salad served with a
variety of accompaniments, ranging from grilled meats to lemongrass tossed tofu,
finished off with lots of fresh herbs and a tangy dressing, and I was very
tempted to try their monkfish with dill bún but in the end went for one of
their equally fantastic sounding noodle soups, craving something warm and comforting
on this cold Friday night.
My bun riéu cua, a crab and tomato noodle soup with prawns
and tofu, was incredible, with zingy flavours not too different from a laksa
but with an added lightness from the crab and fresh tomatoes and with an earthy
element from all the fresh herbs, that made it all in all a real pleasure to
eat. The portion again was huge and I struggled to finish the noodles and
broth, not that I am complaining if I could have I would have finished it for
While one of my other dining companions also went for the
soup, another chose one of BúnBúnBún’s set rice meal. A real steal at £11.5,
though I forgot to mention that my delicious pho was only £10.2 (!), their set
meals come with rice, pickles and vegetable broth as well as your choice of
curry, steak, slow cooked pork or clay pot stew, there is really something for
everyone. My friend in the end went for the spicy tofu curry with fresh tomato
and once again seemed very impressed with the fresh flavours and quality of
ingredients served up. This was across the board delightfully none stodgy food
that impressed with fresh flavours not grease and MSG.
As our plates were cleared we could spy our waiter eyeing up
our table, ready to give it to the next lot of hungry revellers, but we really didn’t
mind making a move so others could enjoy BúnBúnBún. If you want to linger around
for hours after your dinner has been eaten this may not be your ideal spot, but
then again you are a short walk away from Shoreditch where there are plenty of
bars for another drink or restaurants if you want a dessert.
For the £24 we paid each including corkage (plus £6 for a
bottle of white from Sainsbury’s) we had an outstanding dinner and I for one do
not mind a place that is a little rough around the edges as long as it delivers
authentic food at great prices. I cannot believe it took me so long to try this
place, I will be embarking on the 5 minute walk there a lot more often rather
than reverting to Deliveroo, they’ve got a new regular that’s for sure.
.....because this month seems never ending and a great home cooked meal with a decent bottle of supermarket bought wine shared with friends beats any fancy restaurant!
WHOLE ROAST CAULIFLOWER WITH MUSTARD, MAYO AND CHEESE CRUST
Kinda healthy without feeling like it too much and great for feeding a few friends.
Serves 3-4 with a substantial side dish (I made roast potatoes with courgettes and rosemary on this occasion)
1 HEAD OF CAULIFLOWER
55G OF BUTTER, CUT INTO PIECES
1 TABLESPOON MAYO (I USED HELLMANN'S LIGHT)
1 TABLESPOON DIJON MUSTARD (LESS IF YOU ARE NOT A MUSTARD FAN)
75G GRATED PARMESAN
70G GRATED CHEDDAR
1. Cut away leaves and bottom stalk of the cauliflower so that it can sit up straight on a baking tray.
2. Preheat oven to 200 degrees celsius
2. Place cauliflower in a microwave proof bowl and microwave for approximately 8-10 minutes. Check that the florets have started to softened when you take it out and let it cool for another 10 minutes before transferring to a baking tray.
3. In the meantime combine the mustard and mayo in a bowl and mix well.
4. Using a basting brush to apply the mix onto the cauliflower, making sure you cover it fully and dot with pats of butter.
5. Sprinkle with the cheeses and bake in the oven uncovered for 20-25 minutes until the cheese is golden brown and melted and...ENJOY!
ALISON ROMAN'S TURMERIC, COCONUT MILK AND CHICKPEA STEW WITH KALE
Alison Roman's wholesome stew broke the internet and rightly so. I was wowed by its intense and earthy flavours and cannot wait to make it again! The original recipe calls for a dollop of yogurt on top of the stew but I didn't think it was an essential addition if you don't have any left in your fridge! I made a few tweaks to her original recipe and it worked a real treat, rustled up super quickly on a Friday and with readily available ingredients so no excuses to not give this a go!
Serves 2 generously as main (I didn't have it with added pitta bread on the side so loaded up on the stew in its pure goodness instead)
A GOOD HELPING OF OLIVE OIL 4 GARLIC CLOVES, CHOPPED 1 YELLOW ONION, CHOPPED 1 THUMB SIZED PIECE OF GINGER SALT + PEPPER 2 TSP GROUND TURMERIC 1 TSP CHILLI FLAKES 2 CANS OF CHICKPEAS, DRAINED 2 CANS OF FULL FAT COCONUT MILK (THOUGH YOU WILL ONLY USE 1 1/2) 2 CUPS OF VEGETABLE 1 BUNCH OF KALE (STEMS REMOVED AND TORN UP INTO BITE SIZED PIECES
FRESH TORN MINT
RED CHILLI FLAKES
1. Heat the oil in a large pot over a medium heat. Add garlic, onion and ginger and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally until onion is translucent and starts to brown a little on the edges for about 5 minutes. 2. Add turmeric, red chilli flakes and chickpeas, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently on a medium heat so the chickpeas are coated in the spice and onion mixture for about 5 minutes and be careful to not burn the spices at this stage as the stew will otherwise loose it's nice yellow colour. Remove about a cup of chickpeas and set aside to be fried up further for a garnish later on. 3. Add 1 and 1/2 cans of the coconut milk and 1 and 1/2 cups of the stock, reserving the last 1/2 cup of stock incase it is needed later on and the stew becomes too thick, to the pot. Bring to the simmer, scraping up any bits that have formed on the bottom of the pot and lightly mash down the chickpeas with a fork to allow them to infuse with the liquids. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the stew has thickened and flavours have developed for 15-20 minutes.
4. Add kale and stir as it starts to wilt into the stew. Cook until the greens are tender anywhere between 5 to 10 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings. 5. Fry the reserved chickpeas in a little olive oil until they crisp up and change to a golden colour, it should only take a few minutes. 6. Divide among bowls and top with herbs, crisped chickpeas, yoghurt (if using), and chilli flakes etc.
The concept of “all you can eat” dining tends to get my alarm bells ringing when it comes to restaurants, it most of the time equating to being faced with copious amounts of beige and bland food of different kinds, which may come in an unlimited quantities but tend to underperform when it comes to delivering on flavours and quality.
You don’t tend to find establishments offering all you can eat dining too often, in London at least usually confined to China town where it does the job nicely of feeding the hordes of tourists, willing to look past MSG laden dishes and a bit of grease, or a little further afield on package holidays where you are meant to experience various cuisines from around the globe every day as part of your experience but end up once again mainly indulging in various beige foods, eaten because heck you’ve paid for unlimited access to the food for your stay there, whether it’s good or not so you may as well.
I was therefore more than surprised when I heard that the new east London outpost of Cecconi's, yes the upmarket Italian restaurant Cecconi's that is part of the Soho House empire, was doing their rather unique take on all you can eat dining but to a standard that made it almost too good to be true. Indeed every Sunday between 12pm and 5pm you can join their Sunday feasting and for £25 are able to basically dine like a king and help yourself to the food to the point at which you will need to unbutton your trousers.
The idea behind it is simple, during the week and most of the weekend Cecconi's serves high end Italian fare (think truffle pizza and lobster pasta) in a typically Soho House and with that beautifully designed dining space, all dark wood and low lights with a hint of old school New York grandeur about it, with impeccable service to match. Not that the service or fantastic dining environment is comprised on a Sunday afternoon, no instead they invite their dinners downstairs to the kitchen where an utterly outstanding buffet is set up for one to peruse and make unlimited use off for an almost laughable £25 when one considers the quality and variety of food on offer. And I mean it when I say utterly outstanding.
My dining companion Blaise and I were floored by the sheer choice of starters, mains and desserts and definitely did not strategise well enough when it came to available stomach capacity on this occasion, too quickly too full to have another bite, despite a heavy Barry’s bootcamp session in the morning to work up an appetite. For starters there are cold meats, cheeses, salads, salmon and tuna tartar served in shells, avo in toast and even fresh shellfish, I particularly enjoyed the tartar and wish I had tried more of the salads but we were so overwhelmed that we couldn’t help but check out the hot section even on our first trip downstairs.
And boy was it good. There is truffled cauliflower and cheese (so good!), butternut squash risotto, meatballs, aubergine pamergina, my favourite of the night rotolo with spinach and ricotta (a kind of filled pasta roll), mushroom pasta and slices of fresh pizza with various toppings. That would be enough for mains one would think but then there is also a whole roast section on the counter, with roast potatoes, roast chicken, beef and ham. Every single thing I tried was of outstanding quality as I would expect from Cecconis, which made it all the better that we could return downstairs once our plates were cleared. I mean yes it may not be the most glamorous thing to go down to a kitchen and help yourself but when the choice and quality of food is so good who cares?!
We had to take a little breather before we tackled the dessert table (!) which looked like a sweet tooth’s dream. Cheesecake, homemade tiramisu, profiteroles, Sacher cake, fruit and more than I can even remember. The cheesecake was utterly divine, perhaps one of the best I’ve ever had, and is in fact part of their regular dessert menu and the tiramisu was close to the ones I got to try in Rome which is why went in for seconds, because heck why not.
We ate at 3:30pm and though our reservation, yes you can even reserve your table here which is even more dreamy considering that most London restaurants insist on their stupid walk in policy, stated we only had the table for an hour and a half no waiter hurried us out once that time frame had past and in fact urged dinners to have another helping even after 5pm before they got ready for their dinner service, a lot more generous than your standard timed buffet scenario.
Of course they do have to make their money somehow and here it is no doubt via the drinks because one of course wants to wash down the lovely food with some equally lovely wine. We paid £27 for their cheapest bottle of rosé which is by no means a bargain and cocktails start at the £9 mark (by the way their espresso martini which we ordered to get us out of a food coma was spectacular) but I would never suggest Cecconi's feast as a weekly Sunday outing, it’s a special treat for when you want to be utterly gluttonous and fill your belly to the rim with wonderful food until you cannot breathe.
It is all you can eat done the Soho House way and it’s almost too good to be true so make sure you go before they change their mind. I for one am already planning a return visit in (elegant) stretchy pants.