Staying in one of the busiest parts of London – Trafalgar Square – this weekend, we knew we would have no problem finding a place to eat after a concert we were attending at St-Martin-in-the-Fields. Soho is just a few minutes’ walk away and this opens up the possibility of restaurants of just about all varieties. However, we eventually settled on a Vietnamese restaurant called Cay Tre, and booked online a few days before. We were glad we did this, as when we got there, even with it being 9.45pm, it was absolutely packed. We took this to be a good sign, and were keen to fill our bellies with their delicious fare, having had our second main meal of the day in the form of afternoon tea around five hours earlier.
Looking at the menu, I found I wanted pretty much everything (the Cha La Lot dumplings in particular sounded to die for), so the set menu, by which we got to taste a wide range of dishes, seemed to be a good bet. At £22 per person, it’s ideal for sharing, with everything served on large plates that are placed in the centre of the table, making for a very sociable experience. The surroundings also lend themselves to a lively atmosphere: servers and chefs are extremely efficient, and with tables placed close together, it’s without doubt a place for mixing with friends, rather than cosy romance. This could go well or badly depending on who you’re sat next to: the groups on tables near us were mostly discreet, but a more boisterous gang arrived later (luckily just as we were finishing).
We ordered non-alcoholic cocktails to go with our set menu, which were delivered swiftly from the bar with varying degrees of innovation and flavour. The Hanoi Red River delivered an intensely fruity hit thanks to its blend of guava, lime leaf, passion fruit and coconut water, while the Saigon Lime Soda tasted more of soda water than of lime (only lime wedges and a kaffir lime leaf provided the faint lime flavour). These were extremely reasonably priced, however, coming in at £4 and £3.50 respectively. Plenty of alcoholic beverages are also available, ranging from Japanese wine to Vietnam-themed punches.
Also of good value was the set menu itself. The sharing platter (the ‘starters’, if you will) is the same for all: pork spring rolls, chilli and salt pepper squid, lotus stem salad, wild shrimp rolls, and the cha la lot that I’d been ogling earlier. The stars of the plate were without doubt the cha la lot and the deep-fried squid, although the shrimp and pork rolls were not without merit. Two different dips were brought: chilli oil, and hoisin. Extra hoisin and chilli sauces were available on the table in case extra was required.
As for the main, each person chooses one from a set list, along with a side order each. If there are 6 of you in your party, this means you really do get to try everything. As for us, we went for the slow-cooked Mekong catfish and the roast baby chicken royale for the mains, and jasmine rice with Chinese mustard green for the sides. When it arrived, it was all thoroughly delicious: the catfish came in a spicy red sauce with enormous depth of flavour, and was so tender that you could cut it with your chopsticks. The baby chicken, too, was moist and well-seasoned, and came with a sauce that took it far away from a traditional Sunday roast. Also up for commendation were the greens; they were crunchy without being under-cooked, and offered even further energy and refreshment to proceedings. We had only one complaint: portion sizes were far too large and we felt really guilty about wasting almost half the food. While we do feel that what we ate was good value, we would rather have smaller portion sizes, with the option to order more food if necessary, rather than paying for food that we didn’t eat. We would have taken the leftovers away with us, but would not be returning home until the next day, and draw the line at Vietnamese food for breakfast.
Desserts do not appear to be offered at Cay Tre, but needless to say we did not require them anyway.
Cay Tre is definitely worth another visit, with branches in Soho and Shoreditch to choose from. However, ordering the set menu is only advised if starving hungry, with the à la carte options being far better choices if not.
42-43 Dean Street, London