Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Being A Restaurant Critic Is Easy, Pho Sure

By Ben Brill

I enjoy eating out, but I’m not sure if I’m cut out to be a restaurant critic. I like telling people it’s what I do at dinner parties - “Oh, and I do a bit of food writing on the side,” I say, all nonchalant, like it hasn’t even occurred to me how interesting I must seem – but, recently I’ve started to worry that I’m not as knowledgeable as I should be.

I try to talk to Bea about it when we’re out for Sunday lunch.

“I’m just worried that sometimes I come across as a bit of a chancer,” I say.

“I think you worry too much,” she replies, taking a bite out of her chicken in pitta (lemon and herb, corn on the cob side). “We eat in nice places all the time. You got a lamb doner from E Mono after the pub the other night, didn’t you?”

“I’d forgotten about that,” I say, looking thoughtfully at the chilli stain on my hand-wash-only cardigan. “And Giles Coren goes there, so it must be alright. And we went to MeatLiquor recently. That has to count for something, doesn’t it?”

I’m still a bit nervous about my lunch date at Pho, though. I’m meeting up with Leila, who does something in the restaurant business and could probably spot a chancer a mile off. She’s suggested we try out the Sonh Tinh rice wines and fruit liquors that Pho started importing from Hanoi late last year. You can’t get them anywhere else in the UK, but apparently they’re ace.

We get in early to beat the lunchtime rush, but even at 12.30 on a wet Wednesday, Pho’s dead lively. Perhaps it’s the weather, or maybe it’s something to do with the sun and the yard arm, but everyone seems more interested in their steaming bowls of noodle soup than they are in the six mean looking bottles of rice wine stacked up behind the bar.

Leila orders some pork spring rolls, and a spread of rice wines, and asks, “So, what have you been up to?”
The last three meals I’ve had out have all come served in greaseproof paper after closing time, so I have to think on my feet. “I’m still really into my street food,” I say. “There’s some exciting stuff about at the moment.”

Leila agrees, and we talk for a bit about burritos, banh mi and the Lahore kebab house on Kentish Town Road, eating crisp spring rolls and sipping at sweet, soft plum wine. I’m feeling pretty good. I think I might even be coming across as quite knowledgeable. I start on a glass of white sticky rice wine as my giant bowl of pho with meatballs and brisket arrives.
The pho is rich and warming, and the wine has a heck of a kick. No wonder the waitress smiled sympathetically at me when she brought it over. I’ve started feeling a bit light-headed, and the back of my throat has started to burn a little, but it’s actually quite pleasant. When Leila nips to the loo I sit back in my little red chair and watch the lunchtime crowd slurping away busily at their noodle soups. I'm feeling a bit philosophical. “I wonder if they ever stop to notice... stuff?” I wonder.
Just as I'm thinking I should buy myself a notebook to write down all of my clever thoughts, Leila comes back. “You mentioned that you’re writing about the best places for boozy lunches in London didn’t you?” she says. “Are you going to mention the new Hawksmoor bar? Or Ceviche? Or Mishkin’s in Covent Garden; their cocktails are almost as good as their Reubens, you know…”

I panic. I’ve not been to the new Hawksmoor bar. I’ve not been to Mishkin’s, either (What sort of restaurant critic am I? Even my sister’s been to Mishkin’s). And I’ve never even heard of Ceviche. Maybe this is it; perhaps I’ve been found out. Leila’s going to march me out of Pho and tear up my business cards in the street and pin me up against the wall and throw cicchette and pastrami at me until I admit, through snot and tears of shame, that I’m nothing but a fraud.

But just as I’m about ready to bolt for the exit, these words start pouring out of my mouth. “I’m not that all that fussed about the Russell Norman places, to be honest,” I say. “I don't know if I'll ever feel comfortable somewhere like Polpo. It’s like gatecrashing someone else's party. I’d take a place like this, or Pepito in Kings Cross, any day. Or the 202 bar on Archway Road. People might not write about places like that, but there's nowhere I'd rather lose a couple of hours.” I pause, expecting Leila to interrupt and tell me I’m talking rubbish. But she doesn't. I feel a bit confused. Perhaps she's too polite to call me a chancer. Or perhaps I just worry too much.


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