Thursday, 17 June 2010
Banh Mi Bay, Bloomsbury
I had my very first bánh mì (a kind of Vietnamese/French street food snack) from a little stall on Broadway Market over a year ago, and really rather enjoyed it. First of all, I was surprised by the texture of the bread - I'm told genuine bánh mì use baguettes made of rice flour, which provide a much softer texture than the usual crusty French sticks. Secondly, the filling was also interesting, with all the familiar flavours of good Vietnamese food (coriander, spicy grilled pork paté, pickled carrots and I think perhaps a dash of fish sauce) in a handy lunchbox-sized portion. The textures were addictive, the flavours recognisably Vietnamese and the price pleasingly low - I was impressed, and given the relative ease of setting up a stall and availability of the key ingredients I expected to see banh mi stall popping up on every street corner. For whatever reason, that never seemed to happen - banh mi in London are still a rarity.
And so the opening of Banh Mi Bay on the corner of Gray's Inn Road and Theobald's Road, just a short trot from my office on High Holborn, was a very exciting prospect. If they were as good as the example I'd tried all that time ago in Hackney, and were a similar price, I could easily see myself becoming their best customer, gorging myself silly on soft rice flour baguettes and becoming forever the incumbent "mayor" on Foursquare. Sadly, the reality of the new place was far more mundane.
From the first bite, you could tell these were not "authentic" (a meaningless word really but it will have to do) rice flour baguettes, just normal crusty French sticks, meaning my jaw was aching so much before I was even 2/3 through I had to give up. That wasn't the only problem though. Instead of a freshly grilled slice of spiced pork, the protein for this particular banh mi was taken from a pile of pre-sliced processed meat that looked suspiciously like what goes into a Subway. Not very attractive. Sweet pickled carrots were fine, and I did get the odd hit of red chilli, but it was desperately missing some stronger flavours - perhaps some dressing or fish sauce, I can't tell you, but something to lift it out of the ordinary. I am acutely aware that given I've only ever had one of these things previously in my life I can hardly claim to be an authority on the matter, but out of the two, one was delicious and one wasn't.
At £2.80 for quite a large sandwich it was at least cheap, but to be good value it also needed to be worth £2.80, and I really don't think it was. But a side order of summer rolls came with a nice hoi sin sauce and seemed remarkably fresh considering they just lifted it off a shelf when I asked for it, so perhaps there are other items hidden on the quite lengthy menu that are worth exploring. I quite like the idea of the 'shredded caramel pork' banh mi, and of course for eat-in diners only they do a Pho, another good test of a Vietnamese kitchen. So perhaps I will be back, and perhaps I will eventually decide Banh Mi Bay is brilliant. But in the interests of fairness, I have to rate on my first visit, and based on yesterday's lunch, there are better ways to spend your money in Bloomsbury. Chilli Cool is just around the corner, for a start.