Thursday, 8 October 2009
Mien Tay, Lavender Hill
You would be forgiven for assuming that out of the huge amount of restaurants on Lavender Hill, at least a handful would be any good. On the short walk from Clapham Junction up to the police station on the corner of Latchmere Road and down again to the intersection with Wandsworth Road you pass a good twenty or so actual sit-down restaurants - I'm not even including the takeaway joints or kebab shops. In the five or six years I've been living in the area, I think I've been to most of them at least once or twice, endlessly, foolishly optimistic that the next may serve a meal even worth paying for, never mind returning to. There's a mind-numbingly dull, sub-Wagamamas sushi joint, a dreadful overpriced "gastropub", two equally awful Thai restaurants, a terrible fish and chip shop, a handful of middle-of-the-road Indians that could have been transplanted from any suburban high street in the country, and even a Nepalese which I'm yet to visit but which in its previous incarnation as a French restaurant once made me wait an hour for my starter and I left without leaving a tip. There's Donna Margherita of course, which is pretty consistent, and I'll admit I've never stepped inside Nancy Lam's Enak Enak, put off largely by the garish twenty-foot-high personality-cult portrait of a grinning Nancy on the side of the building. But really, more is less in this part of the city.
So you'll forgive me for getting ludicrously excited about the arrival of Mien Tay, a proper Vietnamese restaurant which has been wowing the crowds in trendy Shoreditch for a year or two now and which has chosen this cursed stretch of road, amongst the estate agents and two-for-one cocktail bars, for its second branch. Still in soft-opening phase until tomorrow (9th October), the meal we had was discounted by 10% and you can't yet pay by credit card (necessitating a hasty jog down the hill in the rain to the cash point), but judging purely by the standard of the food served, Mien Tay stands head, shoulder and toes over the rest of the dross in the area.
First of the small dishes to arrive was a heavenly honey-glazed quail, rich in sweet spicing and heady notes of garlic and fresh herbs. Perfectly charred and deeply marinated, it was a joy to pull apart and suck at the little limbs with their crispy coating. And it was as pretty as a picture to look at too - even the garnish showing attention to detail, some pickled carrots being sweet and sour in just the right balance.
Tamarind prawns were perfectly juicy and for £6 there were plenty of nice fat crustaceans here, doused in the tangy tamarind sauce. If I was going to be picky, I am still a bit squeamish about these gloopy sauces thickened with (I assume) cornflour, but this is probably just a personal thing. I still ate them all.
Spring rolls were as good as I've had almost anywhere - just crunchy enough, deftly and greaselessly fried, and containing superbly fresh vegetables. And the minced beef parcels in betel leaves were gorgeous, the thin fried leaves breaking to reveal moist and richly beefy mince. Both dishes were again very attractively presented with huge bunches of fresh herbs and mint.
This Bánh xèo crispy pancake was somewhat of a gamble. One of my dining companions last night had recently been in Vietnam, and her favourite dish she ate all trip was a Bánh xèo somewhere in the south, which she spent the rest of the journey trying and failing to match. The unwritten rule is do not try and recreate your favourite holiday dishes at home, as they will invariably be a disappointment. But the example here was declared "not quite as good as the best, but better than all the others". High praise indeed.
The best, however, was yet to come. A rather straightforwardly presented plate of thin fried lamb and onions was so brilliantly spiced and deeply-flavoured it almost ranked up there with any of Tayyabs' best offerings. It seems odd to compare the light, fresh notes of Vietnamese cooking with the dense and meaty Pakistani grill house, but the parallels here were obvious - cheapish meat, albeit cooked intelligently, with such a brilliant command of spicing that the dish is lifted into another stratosphere.
The bill, a paltry £42 which included a bottle of white wine, came with a final unexpected flourish - a segmented half orange. The love, the care and the passion is in the detail, and Mien Tay has enough to satisfy the most jaded Battersea resident. Anywhere else in London Mien Tay would be welcomed with open arms and would deserve to do very well. By the standards of Lavender Hill, it's as if the culinary gods themselves have shined a light from the heavens and blessed SW11 with the restaurant of their dreams. On a damp Wednesday night, with little to no publicity (it has apparently already been open three weeks and yet most of the foodie publications on Twitter were oblivious), it was full by the time we left at 8pm. It won't be long before they'll be queuing out of the door.