Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Mrs Le's Banh Mi and Grill, Battersea

In 2005 I moved to Battersea and, for a while, there was nowhere decent nearby to eat. Actually, that's not strictly true - the Greyhound on Battersea High St had a decent stab at being a sort of Antipodean gastropub for a while, though they'd perhaps misjudged the area's level of gentrification at the time as I distinctly remember being pelted with gravel by a gang of feral youths as I attempted to dine al fresco. Sadly the Greyhound and, less sadly, the youths, moved on.

A little later, the Fox and Hounds on Latchmere Road became our go-to local, and for a while was notable as the only pub in the area that refused to serve a burger and/or chips. Indeed, it still serves a mainly Italian selection of dishes (burrata, risotto, pasta) although sadly (again...) the standard of food dipped quite heavily when a certain chef quit around 2008 and is now really only worth visiting for the lovely beer garden out back. They now do a burger. With chips.

You can imagine my delight, then, when Mien Tay opened in 2009. on Lavender Hill. In stark contrast to the collection of half-assed pizza/kebab joints, fish & chip shops and bland curry houses that were their neighbours on this unlovely stretch of road, Mien Tay was a Proper Vietnamese Restaurant, serving fresh summer rolls, honey-glazed quail dipped in lime and salt and sizzling plates of spiced lamb and fried onions, in a cosy (if not always comfortable - blimey they love to keep those radiators on full blast) family-run space. It was - and crucially still is - a great little restaurant, and I go all the time.

Mien Tay could, I'm sure, have used their acquisition of one of the aforementioned half-assed fish & chip shops next door (it was called Salisbury's, if you care, which you shouldn't) as a kind of Mien Tay spillover, as the mothership quite understandably gets so slammed on weekday evenings. Instead, the concept is something genuinely new to London - a fiercely authentic (or so I'm led to believe) replica of the kind of grill restaurant you'd find in South West Vietnam, complete with laminated menus full of offal, seafood and grilled meats, and enough unusual eye-catching specialities to make any blogger's head spin.

As a blogger, then, and therefore someone with a compulsive habit of ordering the most unusual items on any given menu whether I think I'll like it or not, we started with chicken gizzards. These were, as chicken gizzards always are, quite alarmingly crunchy and without a great deal of flavour, although the fruit/lime dip they came with was lovely and it was all clearly very well done, at least as much as gizzards can be. I'm not going to complain about ordering chicken gizzards and then being given chicken gizzards, because that would be deeply unfair. If you love chicken gizzards, these are the chicken gizzards for you.

But what came next was much more to our tastes. Bivalves and cheese is a pairing that has a certain precedent in Western cooking - oysters "Rockefeller"[see edit] is a steakhouse starter staple - but here, treated to a cleverly balanced sauce and grilled just to the point where they're hot but the oysters themselves are plump and full of briney flavour, the match makes even more perfect sense. Apparently these delicacies are sold roadside in the region of Vietnam called (what else) Mien Tay, and their successful reproduction in London relies on only the largest oysters being available from Billingsgate. It's dishes like this, something (as far as I know) genuinely new on our shores that must have taken a certain amount of bravery to add to a menu in SW11 in 2018, that make you thank the stars that at least not everyone is running shy from innovation. A gamble for them, and us, that paid off wonderfully.

Lamb chops were somewhat more straightforward but hardly less enjoyable. Pink inside and touched with a charcoal char, they were listed with the suggestion "try with our sticky rice cakes" and so having ordered said rice cakes separately we were surprised to find the chops came with them anyway. So we ended up with quite a few rice cakes. Still, they were nice rice cakes so no harm done.

House pickles were excellent, particularly lemongrass which had a heavenly aromatic flavour perfectly offset by a sweet brine, and some sticks of turnip which had a pungent, complex character all of their own. Even more than places that make their own bread, I increasingly find that restaurants that do their own house pickling, brining and fermenting have their efforts rewarded tenfold. This was top pickle work.

Of course, we couldn't ignore the banh mi section of the menu and so ordered the "traditional" as a good test of their sandwich abilities. Filled with cracklingly fresh herbs, with more of those super house pickles and containing a generous amount of salty, smoky pork, this was about as good an example of this kind of thing as I've had in many a year. Even the bread was just right, fragile enough to allow complete satisfying bites containing all the filling, without sacrificing any structural integrity. I may have mentioned how close this places is to my house, but crucially it's also directly on my commute home from work. I see lots of banh mi in my future.

The bill for two people, with four beers and an extra banh mi to go (well why not) came to £56, perhaps not as bargain-basement cheap as Mien Tay was in its early years but still fantastic value for careful, fun, innovative cooking of this level. Yes, thirteen years after I moved to Battersea of course I wish there were more, and better places to eat in the area, but when somewhere like this comes along that allows me, even for a while, to ignore the other dross on Lavender Hill and pretend I live a few steps away from the foodie hub of Kingsland Road, well, they have my eternal gratitude. Any curious Londoner should find something to challenge and excite them in Mrs Le's Banh Mi and Grill; for local Battersea residents though, this is something very special indeed.


EDIT: Apparently Oysters Rockefeller doesn't involve cheese. I don't know why I thought it did. Sorry.


leiladukes said...

Four beers and an extra banh mi on a rainy Tuesday night... two fingers up to Dry January/Veganuary nonsense!

Alex C said...

Yay! Am off to Battersea tomorrow for the first time in ages so this couldn'thave been better timed.
I miss the Greyhound. Had some wonderful dinners there - the real downside was when the second chef left and the third one really wasn't up to snuff and it was never remotely as good. I run into Mark Deamer the sommelier occasionally - he's selling Greek wine nowadays. I used to love asking him to surprise me back when the Greyhound was in it's pomp.
A great pity Battersea Bar and Mess closed too - that was a great fun place with decent food and a teriffic drinks selection (loads of places have it now but it was where I first discovered Lagavulin 16)
All the best

Unknown said...

Sorry to say, but the place is closed.