REVIEW: Restaurant: Deep within The Left Bank, the owners of the newly opened Phong Vu Vietnamese Restaurant seek to erase the memory of the tatty caffs that have previously occupied their 25-seater telephone booth.
There's been a thorough cleansing and repainting of the hutch and, with the clutter stripped away to reveal a clean, white minimalist shell, the space no longer seems quite so pokey.
The rush-woven chairs are charming, as is the whimsical latticework of fake bamboo along the bottoms of the wraparound windows.
But, sadly, the crate of glasses on the counter and the dreaded glass-fronted drinks fridge define a proletarian aesthetic, aided by a series of too-small folk paintings around the walls.
I can't vouch for the many pedestrian-sounding stir-fries on the menu, and Deep-fried Tofu on Rice Noodle only confirmed our suspicion that the vegetarian offerings are plain and dull, but choose from the sections headed Entree, Vietnamese Noodle Soup and Pancake, and you'll find famous classics done well.
Phong Vu is one of only two Vietnamese restaurants in Wellington offering the minced prawn skewer known as Chao Tom, where prawns are pounded into a paste and then tossed against the side of the bowl in the same way as Thai fish cakes, to achieve a light, springy texture.
Additions being minimal - just sugar, garlic and fish sauce - the stiff mousse is wrapped around juicy, freshly cut twigs of sugar cane, steamed, then grilled or fried and served with a simple dipping sauce.
A perennial favourite at hawker food centres in Saigon, Chao Tom was the dish I most wanted to try at Phong Vu.
It was just a pity our waiter repeatedly misunderstood my order and delivered me prawn rice paper rolls - twice! But third time around, a trio of spongy prawn lollipops provided sweet closure to the drama.
Our rice paper rolls (goi cuon) seemed a little lacking in density, flavour balance and herbal zing.
Though not quite up to the standard of Saigon Taste in Mount Vic, the pho (beef noodle soup) was correct in every technical respect, right down to the side offerings of fresh herbs, lime wedges, sliced chilli and chilli sauce.
If you can get your head around the idea of Vietnamese French colonial charcuterie as a spongy fishcake made of pork, you'll love the little half moons that garnish both the Bun Bo Hue (See Two Things To Try) and the Banh Cuon.
Banh Cuon are rice flour crepes, stuffed with minced pork and cloud ear fungus, at their best freshly steamed and trickily scraped off a steaming flat sieve when their texture closely resembles the slippery rice noodle rolls you get at Yum cha. These appeared to have been made with reconstituted dried rice paper, so were firmer, but came deliciously sprinkled with crisply fried shallot.
Like its neighbours in The Left Bank, Phong Vu prices its Vietnamese food low, the better to serve students, hipsters and all who hang in the Cuba hood.
Well, maybe not quite all. As we left via the back entrance to The Left Bank, we passed a huddle of hoodies squatting in their own private outdoors cafe glugging their BYO out of a shared brown paper-bagged bottle.
Observing the etiquette of looking straight ahead and not engaging eye contact as I passed, I avoided a repeat of my late-night experience in nearby Abel Smith St some years ago, when I got my shirt buttons ripped by a Mobster who hauled me to his face and snarled: "Giss your money c...!"
"Leave him alone, Smiley!" one of the women had called, and as he did so, I was left thinking hell, if you're Smiley, I'd hate to meet Grumpy.
Phong Vu 210A Left Bank, off Cuba St
Ph: 928 8888
Open for lunch & dinner
Fully licensed & BYO
Price range of mains: $12.90-$22
Cost: $58 for two (excluding wine)
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