Banh Mi Bay

Address:  4-6 Theobalds Rd, Holborn, London WC1X 8PN
Bookings:  Walk in
Day:  Wednesday
Meal:  Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 6.5 /10

Screen Shot 2018-08-14 at 19.31.49I may have eaten at Banh Mi Bay in Holborn a hundred times, and in the words of a certain famous French cabaret singer: non je ne regrette rien.

Yes, convenience played a part. I could have punted a Vietnamese spring roll over the restaurant from my front door. But then again, you don’t make weekly missions to every restaurant over which you can kick or toss small items of food. No, Banh Mi Bay’s magnetism derives from the fact that it serves up consistently excellent food, to take away or to eat in, for less than £10. Each time, every time. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Screen Shot 2018-08-14 at 19.31.35When taking out, I normally order the chargrilled chicken and boiled rice, which comes with a bundle of fresh vegetables, tomatoes, cucumber, carrots, and two pots of sauce, one fire-hot red chilli, the other a kind of Vietnamese soy sauce. The chicken is always grilled to perfection, trim and succulent, the rice sticky and light. The whole dish has a fresh and clean feel, healthy and simple.

Last week, I dropped in with my partner in culinary crime, a debutante at the restaurant. The place itself is simple: a huge glass panel window that faces the street; an open kitchen with a grill; twenty or so wooden tables with rickety little chairs.

I ordered the five spice lamb, marinated overnight and fried in a wok with peppers and succulent onions, served in a drop-dead soy and honey sauce. Outrageously nice. The whole ensemble came sizzling and spitting on a platter, the soft lamb and juicy onions browning before my eyes, the heat bubbling through the food as I speared at it with a fork. The rich fragrance came smoking off the platter, and for a moment it felt like I was in some ramshackle food market outside of Hanoi. I had a bowl of fried rice on the side, the grains crisp and aromatic.

Screen Shot 2018-08-14 at 19.31.43My partner in culinary crime wolfed down a bowl of stir-fried flat rice noodles with fat little prawns, crispy shards of onion scattered over the top. Unable to set about them with the desired pace using chopsticks, she raided their cutlery draw for a fork and went hell for leather at the delicious mound of noodles.

The only disappointing dish was the Vietnamese spring rolls, which were pork and prawns wrapped in Vietnamese rice paper. These were cold, stumpy and somewhat gelatinous, and there was nothing welcoming about their taste. The main courses were very generous anyway, and so we left these dumpy little creatures on their platter with few regrets.

Screen Shot 2018-08-14 at 19.31.29All of this came to around £30, and as mentioned, we could easily have done without the spring rolls, meaning two people can dine well in this restaurant for £25. You can’t say that about many places in central London. Banh Mi Bay’s quality to price ratio is one of the highest in the capital.

Banh Mi Bay has now expanded to three locations, with venues in Fitzrovia and St. Paul’s joining the Holborn original. This success is well deserved. Try one of them. Like Edith Piaf, you’ll have no regrets.


Dining in Crete

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This past week my partner in culinary crime and I were on the sunny island of Crete, and as usual in the aftermath of a trip abroad, we are bringing you the culinary highlights and lowlights of our adventures across the seas.

Screen Shot 2018-06-03 at 20.54.22Some general comments on Cretan cooking: portion sizes are astronomically large, with starters the size of main courses, and main courses the size of small buffets. The food is also dense and very heavy. It is not advisable to attempt to swim in the aftermath of a Cretan lunch or dinner.

The size of the portions is made more problematic by the fact that the restaurant proprietors seem genuinely upset by the sight of any food left on your plate, and the chef in family run restaurants will sometimes roll out of the kitchen and enquire why the 10th potato on the plate hasn’t been finished.

Screen Shot 2018-06-03 at 20.55.00At the end of every meal we were brought small cakes “on the house”, as well as a small flask of ouzo and two shot glasses. I warmed to this tradition, and by the end of the trip was looking forward to knocking back my shot. But on to the restaurants.

Taverna Petra, Kissamos – 3

We were recommended this restaurant by the Lonely Planet Guide. People stopped buying the Lonely Planet guides back in the 1990s when the internet made them redundant, and ghastly, holiday-sabotaging recommendations like this one will not win them back any readers. We pulled into this restaurant after we had finished trekking down into the breath-taking Balos Lagoon, and had worked up a considerable appetite in the process. No degree of hunger however, could make what they served up appealing. I ordered a pork gyros with chips, which was like a bad kebab but without the bread. The meat was tough and fatty, the chips cold and stodgy.

Screen Shot 2018-06-03 at 20.55.08My partner in culinary crime ordered a lamb kebab with cream, with the meat burnt more severely than some of the British tourists we’d spotted smouldering on the local beaches. She ate so little of her meal that it was actually embarrassing to face the friendly waitress, and so she cut off some large chunks of the kebab and surreptitiously slipped them to a stray dog who was marauding around the legs of our outdoor table. The tough little bastard – no doubt used to eating out of bins – swallowed both pieces, but did so without any real relish. I could swear that he gave us a slightly hurt look as he lay back down in the sun to digest. Avoid this restaurant, no matter how hungry you are.

Akrogiali, Chania – 4

Screen Shot 2018-06-03 at 20.25.38We were recommended this restaurant by the Daily Telegraph, who commended it as serving the best seafood in Chania. I can only assume that whichever food critic the Telegraph dispatches to Crete has had a successful and complete amputation of his taste buds, because no one with a working mouth could possibly recommend this place in good faith. They served us a bowl of mushrooms that were prehistoric in their texture, as old and leathery as a well-worn flip-flop. My partner in culinary crime ordered a swordfish which was bland and dry. I was served a bowl of calamari. The waiter described them as, “fresh.” I don’t know if there’s an equivalent of the Trade Descriptions Act in Crete, but if there is, I would certainly be due some legal redress. They may have been fresh some time last year, but not in May 2018. Avoid this place, regardless of the Telegraph’s burblings.

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The Well of the Turk, Chania – 6

Screen Shot 2018-06-03 at 20.26.06Set in the old Turkish district of Chania, the Well of the Turk served up good food, and was a welcome break from the tourist trap restaurants that littered the seafront in Platanias. I had an Armenian pizza, known as Lahmajoun, a thin piece of dough with minced lamb, onions, tomatoes and parsley laid loosely across the top of it. It was light and tasty, the lamb warm and salted, the onions adding crunch to the dish. My partner in culinary crime had a well grilled shish kebab, the chicken well bronzed, but still succulent. We finished off with a murderously delicious cake, appropriately named Death by Chocolate. It was dark and sweet, with fruity undertones shot through it. It would certainly be a pleasant way to go.

The restaurant is delightfully situated, with a small, leafy garden for al fresco dining, and the place is surrounded by historic buildings and narrow, winding, cobbled streets. It is the probably the best place in Chania for a meal.

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To Pigadi, Rethymno – 6.5

Screen Shot 2018-06-03 at 20.24.46The pick of the restaurants in Rethymno. Again, beautifully situated on a small side street, with a gated garden full of creeping vines, frescos on the rustic walls, and a little water fountain acting as background music. I had a zesty, succulent tuna, which was wonderfully light, and set off beautifully by a subtle lemon sauce. My partner in culinary crime ordered a lamb cooked in a ceramic pot, which was literally bubbling with flavour when it landed on the table, a crisp top of pastry concealing a cauldron of lamb, potatoes, artichokes in a thick stew. It was tasty, heavy food. This is certainly a good spot for a sunset dining experience, the picturesque streets a romantic backdrop to well-made food.

Screen Shot 2018-06-03 at 20.25.11And thus, it comes to an end, another culinary expedition complete. I certainly wouldn’t place Crete anywhere near the top of my list of places to go for food, but, like pigs hunting for truffles, we did manage to sift out some decent spots. If you do go, avoid restaurants in heavily touristic areas like the plague, order light, and enjoy your ouzo responsibly!

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