Restaurant review: Wellington's Thanh Giong Pho hits the mark
Although a newcomer to Chews Lane, Thanh Giong Pho looks to have been around forever.
The cafe's false bamboo ceiling may be new, but by its hilariously beat-up bamboo lacquer furniture and period street sign, you'd think Thanh Giong Pho had first catered to American GIs in the 60s.
To Westerners "Thanh Giong" is barely pronounceable, let alone catchy, yet every Vietnamese knows Thanh Giong as the mythical national hero who repelled an invading Chinese army.
Unfortunately, Thanh Giong in Chews Lane was facing invasion issues of its own.
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At that late stage of the lunch hour I was the last customer, so having taken my order, my young female server turned her back and began to chat with the chefs in the kitchen.
Meanwhile, in the air space above my table, three flies engaged in a dogfight, while at my feet a pigeon dropped by for a few leisurely pecks at the crumbs from my table, thus ending a remarkably fruitful circuit of the dining room floor. Well, it saves on the vacuuming later.
But to be fair, the kitchen looked clean, the crockery, spoons and chopsticks were all spotless, and crucially the contents of the bowls were delicious.
As the shop sign indicates, this is a pho shop, so I began with the classic beef noodle soup from Hanoi, served here with fresh, housemade noodles.
While there might have been more fresh herbs on the side plate of garnitures, I did understand that this was the dead of winter. The broth itself was very good, speaking of the long, honest boiling of beef bones with star anise and cinnamon (even if a lack of collagen and gelatine stopped it short of total heaven.) Lifted umami accents suggested the merest snort of aji-no-moto, the chef's cocaine, but if so, what of it? David Chang, Harold McGhee Anthony Bourdain and I all think it's time we got over unproven myths about monosodium glutamate.
The specialty of the house, PhoVit Van Dinh, is essentially the same broth and noodle base, but topped with a delectably succulent duck breast, sweet-sour glazed and roasted in the style of Van Dinh, a town near Hanoi where free-range ducks are reared over pasture. The skin could have been crunchier but again, it was four-and-a-half out of five.
As I felt I couldn't leave without trying a fish dish I remembered fondly from Cha Ca La Vong restaurant in Old Hanoi, I asked the waitress to take my half-finished duck and put it in a takeaway container, then bring the Bun Cha Ca La Vong to have there. Instead she binned my duck and brought me the fish as a takeaway!
With the dish disassembled and re-presented, I felt the fish missed a little by not being brought to the table still sizzling in a beat-up, blackened little frypan upon a table brazier, allowing diners to gradually add the herbs, spring onions and greens and briefly fry them.
However, I feel the involved flurry of components (fresh herbs, lettuce, turmeric-coated fish, nuoc cham dipping sauce, vinegar-diluted shrimp paste, peanuts, deep-fried shallots, vermicelli noodles) captured the essence of the dish rather well.
I'll be back, albeit with fly spray and a pigeon scarer.
ONE THING TO TRY
The photo with the dish on the menu shows the usual prawns, but do ask (very slowly and clearly) for the version with marinated, grilled pork, rice vermicelli and a miniature log of fresh pineapple. A little side-pile of fresh mint and coriander allows the diner to season to taste. They're delightfully different.
NEED TO KNOW
16 Chews Lane
Ph 022 468 9968
Open 9am-9pm 7 days
No liquor licence
Price range of mains: $14-$18
Cost: $58 for two
Drinks list: ★★★