Banh Mi Bay is well situated, on the corner of Grays Inn Road and Theobalds Road, just a stone’s throw from Holborn and not too far from the City. With their cheap, quick and easy Vietnamese baguettes (the eponymous Banh Mi) I imagine they would do a roaring takeaway lunch trade. My dining partner and I, however, had seen the full menu online and couldn’t resist trying out the restaurant for dinner one Friday evening. The décor is all pale green walls and light wood furnishings, with Vietnamese groceries for sale from a cabinet at one side of the spacious dining room. Whilst perfectly pleasant, these looks add to the casual, daytime feel of the place. The wine list was quite limited, offering just four whites, four reds and two rosés, and I was surprised by the absence of aromatics like Viognier that would really complement the spicy food. We opted for a bottle of the 2007 Kahurangi Estate Dry Riesling. Although not a wine I would usually choose, it had decent hints of steely citrus and went well with our meal. And I have to admit that the food was simply excellent.
My dining partner and I shared a couple of starters between us. Our prawn Goi (a Vietnamese salad) was fantastically flavoursome, the freshness of the shredded cucumber, radish and beansprouts well exhibited by the zesty lemon chilli dressing. They didn’t skimp on the prawns either, giving us enough for 3 each even though this was only a starter. The Bi Cuon (caramelised pork summer rolls) had a wonderful texture, with soft, thin rice paper wrapped around crunchy lettuce and succulent shredded pork, and the chilli sauce for dipping gave the dish a nice little kick.
For main course, I opted for the Ga Sate Bun – warm chargrilled satay chicken served over cold vermicelli rice noodles, lettuce, cucumber and bean sprouts with crushed peanuts and a little bowl of chilli sauce to pour over if desired. The chicken was deliciously tender, and the taste of the chargrill came through nicely. The combination of warm chicken with cold salad made for an interesting contrast and the fact that I was eating so much fresh veg made me feel quite virtuous and healthy. My dining partner’s main course of Com Dia – steamed rice with chargrilled pork, shredded caramel pork, steamed crab & pork meatloaf was quite the feast and came served with sliced cucumber, tomato, pickled carrot and mooli.
After all that food, it was a bit of a struggle to fit in dessert, but we decided to go for it for the benefit of this restaurant review. I went for the Che Dau Trang, which was a sort of glutinous coconut flavoured rice pudding with black eyed peas mixed in. It sounds odd, but it was absolutely delicious – thick and satisfying and not overly sweet. My dining partner tried the Che Ba Mau – served in a highball glass, this was a homemade tapioca jelly with kidney beans, coconut cream and crushed ice. To the English palate, this might not be a natural dessert choice as it was decidedly more refreshing than sweet, and the variety of textures – the crunch of the ice, the chewiness of the jelly and the creaminess of the coconut all vying for attention at once – was a tad confusing. But once we got over the slight weirdness it was in fact a very tasty dish and a nice note on which to end our meal.
So, how many Forks-Up does Banh Mi Bay deserve? The service was friendly enough, though sadly not particularly attentive or polished – we had to ask several times before we got our glasses of tap water, and our desserts were initially delivered to a neighbouring table, who had just begun tucking into their starters and looked decidedly puzzled to be offered our sweets. The wine list was slightly disappointing, but the food was wonderful, authentic Vietnamese and the value for money was outstanding: 3 courses and half a bottle of wine came to less than £25 per head. Overall then, Banh Mi Bay gets an impressive three and a half Forks-Up.Banh Mi Bay 4-6 Theobalds Road Holborn London WC1X 8PN http://www.banhmibay.co.uk