Address: 2 Surrey Cres, Grey Lynn
Ph: (09) 378 8738
I miss Alejandro. Argentinian by birth and Italian by gastronomic inclination, he owned Tango, the pizza and pasta bar at the top of Chinaman's Hill where he made surpassingly wonderful ricotta gnocchi.
The Professor and I dropped by for dinner when I couldn't be bothered cooking (the Professor can never be bothered cooking). But as I paid the bill he always said "thanks for your support", which had a whiff of despair about it. So I was not surprised to see a couple of months ago that the place had closed down: it's probably easier to sell crack cocaine than carbohydrates to those gym-bunny celebs who drive around Grey Lynn in their Porsche Cayennes.
The previous occupier, a Mexican place with pretensions and an unpronounceable name, failed to make a go of it, too. So this new occupant, a casual Vietnamese cafe, is swimming against the tide of recent history. But it's swimming pretty strongly.
Owner Joni (real name Hong Hoang; she likes Joni Mitchell) is a Saigon native who cooks, with her mother, Dap Nguyen, recipes that mother and daughter have concocted together. I dropped in for a solo Friday lunch a week ago because I had wanted to try their pho bo.
This beef noodle soup, originally a northern speciality, is now a Vietnamese standard, at home and in the Little Saigons of the diaspora, and it's a bellwether dish for a Vietnamese restaurant: if the stock doesn't have a deep rich taste, or if there's a whiff of MSG, you're probably sitting in a Vietnamese restaurant run by Chinese.
Jodi's pho bo is the real deal. She uses oxtail for the consomme and the beef comes as thin and tender slices and as tiny meatballs made of finely chopped topside. The garnish plate might have done with extra coriander, but the sprouts were beautifully fresh and the rice noodles light and slender. The whole dish took me back to the pavement kitchens of Hanoi, which is where any sensible visitor always eats.
My lunch was a follow-up to a dinner a few nights earlier when we'd found the place reassuringly busy, although it has been open less than a fortnight. The decor is not substantially changed, although some murals of shutters with peeling paint evoke the peeling paint and shutters of colonial-era Vietnam.
The drinks list betrays no connection to Vietnam except for the presence of a Saigon beer, though the scotch is called "Johnny Whisky" which has an endearingly Asian touch. The food selection looks authentic and sophisticated. Each dish comes with a Vietnamese pronunciation guide, which is useful but it's a language in which tone affects meaning, so you can spend a week practising "could I have a glass of water" only to say "my rickshaw wonders very sour". I stuck to the English translation.
The menu is divided into small plates ($10), salads ($17) and mains ($17 to $25) and a group of half a dozen could probably order one of everything (which would be a fine idea). The Professor and I had to be somewhat more circumspect.
We started with a selection of the rice paper rolls (sometimes called summer rolls) that are a staple Vietnamese snack. They were prepared with impressive attention to the appearance as well as taste. My favourites were the prawn and pork ones, in which the prawn was appliqued to the surface, but one with watercress and salmon worked very well too. Even nicer were the net spring rolls, in which the wrapping is made from a delicate filigree of deep fried vermicelli pastry that has dried off so it doesn't taste even slightly greasy.
A dish of steamed mussels with a dressing of coconut cream flavoured with lemongrass was a shade routine, as was some unaccountably gritty stir-fried beef topped with some tasteless deep-fried prawn rolls. But a thin crepe of rice flour stuffed with braised pork and fresh herbs was a winner.
The dessert selection, which we did not try, looks bland and westernised, apart from a durian icecream sundae. If a dessert made with a fruit so stinky that it is banned from public transport in most of Southeast Asia is your thing, knock yourself out.
At this point, Cafe Viet doesn't quite match the class of Parkside in Mt Albert, but it's certainly worth checking out. That pho bo is a must.
Verdict: Deliciously different.