Just off Shaftsbury Avenue, in the heart of London’s Soho neighbourhood, a glut of Vietnamese restaurants is emerging. It’s a Saturday night, and, as usual, I’m in charge of the restaurant plans for a group of friends. We’ve just been to see The Gatekeepers, the Oscar-nominated documentary featuring interviews with the former directors of Shin Bet, the Israeli version of the FBI.
After taking in all this intellectual stimulation and we head around the corner to Cay Tre, a busy place that feels like we could be in Ho Chi Minh City. Waiters buzz around with stacks of exotic dishes, and diners are packed in tight against the white-washed walls in the cafe-style atmosphere.
The menu is long, and filled with things I’ve never heard of…jasmine bulb stir-fried with egg white, squid filled with duck confit, anchovied chicken wings, and lamb “wokked” (is wok now a verb?) with lemongrass.
As the Middle Eastern debate at our table rages between a Canadian Jew and a Lebanese Londoner, I concentrate on ordering dishes to distract the conversation. We go for half a dozen things, and agree, the square pads of fried tofu with thick shiitake and hon-shimqui mushrooms is one of the best dishes for its warm flavour and substantial texture. Local squid “wokked” with cherry tomatoes, chilli and water spinach is spicy, but clean…everything the tofu isn’t. The stewed pork in caramelised coconut curry is the only miss, but the Red Sea prawns with Chouchou make up for it with a light, but flavourful oyster sauce with dill and chilli.
It’s not long after the first dish is set down that my companions quickly forget about one-state versus two-state solutions to focus on the flavours, which are a refreshing change to our culinary routine of British, French, Italian and Lebanese, all of which seems to dominate London’s restaurant scene.
There don’t seem to be any Vietnamese desserts, so we retreat to a nearby bar for drinks, where even a 30-year old whisky can’t keep us from returning to the topic of world peace. We agree to disagree about politics, but Cay Tre gets a unanimous vote of confidence.