Matt and Cat are a right pair of provincials. Not for nothing is their website called Matt and Cat’s Isle of Wight Eating Out Guide.
Sure, they have made a few forays into mainland reviewing, with a pretty good hit rate – and the occasional dud. But eating out in London must be different, mustn’t it? That capital nexus of dining and the culinary arts, where tiny birds tirelessly fly luscious delicacies into your very mouth; their every wingbeat instagrammed and blogged by an army of knowing cosmopolites.
On a recent trip to That London Matt and Cat soon realised that, despite catering for the nutritional needs of metropolitans, eating out is not so different in Westminster as in Puckaster. Having lunched on a posh fish finger butty, M&C’s dinner adventure began in Canary Wharf. Well, not quite in the sexy skyscraper district, but in Rotherhithe on the opposite side of the Thames. And that, dear reader, was due to the unexpected yet heart-warmingly familiar tale of a ferry being cancelled, marooning the duo on the south side of the river. Turning their backs on the twinkling lights of the financial quarter and its glut of restaurants they peered into the gloom of Rotherhithe. The first taxi driver they flagged down and asked for a recommendation offered to take them to Canary Wharf for fifteen quid, before driving off. The second one told them emphatically there was nothing in Rotherhithe. No pubs, no shops, not even a Tesco Express. It sounded like Winford but with fewer amenities. Undeterred – after a brief consultation with Google – Matt and Cat discovered an address for Café East, the only place for miles around that appeared likely to serve any kind of food. Having spelt out the unfamiliar address to the highly sceptical taxi-driver, they set off southbound past boarded-up hostelries and featureless streets.
Arriving at Café East, a cautious Matt and Cat demanded that the cabbie drive round the perimeter of the restaurant to ascertain whether it was open, as it was located in a building of extremely unpromising appearance. And there it was – the open door! It spilled bright light onto a hipster in a caramel-coloured duffle coat and with a ‘Joy of Sex’ beard approaching the venue from the gloom of the car park. Matt and Cat followed the young man into the Most Buzzing Place in Rotherhithe. Under the bright lights, dozens of mostly Asian people created a happy hubbub as they chowed down on their dinners. Thank you, God.
Pausing momentarily to read the sign about tap water, Matt and Cat were led to a recently-vacated table; spruced up with a new paper table cloth and fresh chopsticks before the body heat from the last occupants had dissipated. The venue was like a hive; numerous smartly-attired staff bustled about each with their specific task but working as part of a collective to serve the throng of diners. It was a joy to behold. And it meant that the speed of service was breathtaking; making the Isle of Wight’s Hong Kong Express chain of eateries seem positively tectonic.
Café East is a Vietnamese restaurant – a first for Matt and Cat – and they didn’t have long to study the menu before their waiter returned with drinks. Fortunately the choice is all simply laid out and well-explained. The menu even had pictures; normally enough to evoke Matt’s special derisory snort, but in this case the photos were necessary and informative.
Matt and Cat started their dinner with gỏi cuốn. Half a dozen little rolls appeared within moments, with a simple salad of bean sprouts, sliced chilli and coriander leaves. The translucent rice paper restrained a stuffing of shredded salad, pork and a single juicy prawn, which was pressed against the tight casing. Using their chopsticks to manoeuvre the rolls into the tangily-sweet peanut sauce M&C, nodded their approbation.
Café East is run like clockwork and, before they had even finished off the gỏi cuốn, Matt and Cat’s main courses were on the table. Cautious Cat had chosen phở ga, a broth-based dish under-spiced to her requirements. The Vietnamese chicken noodle soup was like a young Sophie Dahl – beautiful and vast – and full of tender breast meat. Fresh spring onion bobbed about in the chicken stock and under the surface were plenty of soft flat rice noodles, gently waving like eelgrass in the Solent.
Matt’s bun ga nuong was a vast bowlful of fine vermicelli noodles topped with crispy chicken that had been marinaded in a great spicy sauce. Arguably this light and refreshing dish could be called a salad, as it was served with cucumber, herb salad, pickled carrots, peanuts and fish sauce. It was also, according to the menu, was served with molly – whatever that might be.
Gỏi cuốn £5.00
Bun ga nuong £7.00
Phở ga £7.00
While Cat went fishing in her soup, manipulating her chopsticks in one hand and a dainty porcelain spoon in the other, Matt had already finished his crispy chicken and his plate was duly cleared. An attempt was made by the waitress to hurry Cat along but she is not one for eating quickly at the best of times and she needed more time to do the meal justice. She did a decent job of withdrawing the slices of chicken and hoovering up the noodles before Matt eventually helped her out and glugged down the remains of the delicious, rich broth like a trooper.
By the time Matt and Cat’s mains were finished the restaurant was starting to empty out, and the staff were clearly taking a well-earned break. Alas it meant that M&C weren’t able to charm any of the unusual desserts out of them. This was disappointing as Matt was gung-ho for a glass of chè đậu trắng: black-eyed beans in a sweet Vietnamese rice pudding made with glutinous rice and served with coconut cream.
Matt and Cat enjoyed their first try of Vietnamese cuisine. Café East was an unexpected oasis in a desert of seemingly nothing. Its (mostly) superquick service and decent fresh ingredients were a delight to discover, particularly when M&C were considering having to resort to dining on crisps tickled out of their hotel’s vending machine. In a pleasingly reassuring way the venue had a distinct cafeteria feel, with the acoustics of a school dinner hall and the furniture just on the right side of sparse. And this lack of folderols is presumably how they keep the costs ridiculously low – a tasty, interesting and extraordinarily filling dinner for two within sight of the £624m One Canada Square was less than twenty five quid. This would be good value on the Isle of Wight. In London it’s freakish.
Having settled up (without London’s mandatory 12.5% service charge being added to the bill), Matt and Cat left the bright lights of Café East and strolled across the car park to the nearest bus stop. They were thinking that exotic experience proved that dining in London is not really like the Isle of Wight after all. That is, until their bus was delayed due to a burst water main. Perhaps the city is not as far from the Island as all that…