I’m still yet to taste a better pho in London than Uyen Luu’s. I remember sitting with Raymond Blanc in her little Hackney kitchen as he slurped the product of two hours of cooking and filming. For the first time in those two hours he stopped trying to show that he knew more than everyone in the room and fell silent (briefly, though it blissfully felt like forever) and, effectively, in love with Uyen’s soup.
It is key that the five taste elements are there (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami) but also that those qualities are balanced. There should be a real, meaty depth to the stock – which is thin, though the odd trotter or bone will provide just the tiniest bit of viscosity.
Having read Uyen’s book as well sat with her a couple of times as she prepared the broth, it seems odd to me that her standard is not met elsewhere. No offence, but it’s not rocket science. I guess in more commercial environments, corners are cut or ingredients and time gradually whittled down to the bare minimum. Love and care are probably important but unwritten and often forgotten seasonings.
So I was kind of interested to see that there was a Vietnamese noodle soup restaurant opening up within a stumble of my front door. Would Salvation In Noodles provide redemption for London’s pho?
The restaurant occupies a small site in somewhere that isn’t quite any of Dalston, De Beauvoir, Canonbury or Newington Green. (Non north Londoners, this is the fuzzy bit between Islington and Hackney). It’s an odd place to find salvation. But I guess such an event never materialises where or when you expect.
SIN is cute enough, though, what with its mix of modern lighting, graphics on some walls, plain white and exposed bricks elsewhere, solid but casual fittings, young and energetic staff. The menu is promising too, in that it is short and sweet. There were few starters that we were prompted to share (summer rolls are decent, but not remarkable), then maybe six or seven noodle soups split into pho (flat rice noodles) and bun (vermicelli). This is heaven in comparison to the lengthy menus in most traditional Vietnamese cafés.
“BUT WHAT OF THE NOODLES?” You ask.
Well. Fine. I suppose. But sadly no better than that.
I was disappointed by a bowl of Bun Rieu on my first visit. This crab noodle soup was the top dish, apparently. I was expecting an intoxicating crabby aroma, but the stock had no obvious hint of crustacean and was livened only by breaking up the tomatoes sitting in it and adding a healthy squirt of sriracha. Maybe there was crab in the meatballs (there wasn’t any in the pork belly). Lime, chilli and herbs should come on the side, not in the soup to be fished out, squeezed, separated and scattered. The vermicelli noodles didn’t seem to hold up to the heat of the broth and I kept losing my spoon in the massive bowl too, which pissed me off.
On take two I took on Bun Bo Hue. “The beef brisket soup is our most popular.” This was pleasant enough, yet not revelatory.
The menu states that the broth for the Bun Bo Hue simmers away for 24 hours. They’re not using that time to great effect – there’s not nearly enough beefiness and none of the layering you expect from a lenghty extraction of flavour. My sixty minute post Sunday roast chicken stock has more depth and body. I thought Vietnamese soups were supposed to punch you in the face with the aroma of fresh herbs as they hit the savoury, sweet and sour broth, but this k.o. was more like gentle sedation by drip.
The vermicelli noodles were worse on this occasion. By the time I got through the soup, they looked a bit like shortened Heinz spaghetti and disintegrated to the touch of a chopstick. The spoon didn’t even arrive dry this time (“oh, sorry, can you fish that out or shall I get you a new one?”).
Take three (I live close by, I want it to be good). Pho. Fine. More depth to the broth, though I felt there should be more fish sauce and anise. The flat pho noodles maintained their integrity better and it felt as though the fresh herbs that were provided played a better role. I’ll probably return and have this again.
But it still wasn’t a patch on Uyen’s and I still kept losing my spoon.
I really do wish SIN well. This is a decent concept, but if it’s to be anything more than a local convenience, they need to work on the stocks, find new vermicelli noodles and perhaps do a couple of non soup buns. Oh, and get longer spoons.
Not unpleasant, nor expensive, but not salvation neither.
Salvation In Noodles in 3 words
Noodles In Stock
The noodle soups are under a tenner. Starters around £5.
salvationinnoodles.co.uk– 122 Balls Pond Road, N14AE – 020 7254 4534