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.

Cielo Blanco

Address: 55-57 Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell, London EC1R 4QL
Bookings: no booking required
Day: Sunday
Meal: Lunch
Price: £
Rating: 3/10

Screen Shot 2017-11-08 at 20.45.40I normally go into a restaurant knowing ahead of time that I am going to review it. Not on this occasion. This is an impromptu review written out of a sense of civic mindedness. Having had lunch in Cielo Blanco, it would be wrong of me not to pass on the warning: whatever else you do, never, ever eat there.

It is difficult to know where to start rubbishing this restaurant. The food was slower than if a team of sedated snails had been manning the kitchen. It took 25 minutes for a bowl of tortilla chips and guacamole to arrive. I could have nipped to the local Sainsbury’s in 5 minutes and got exactly the same produce, which is probably what they did anyway.

The food itself was an atrocity. For our main courses, we ordered Huevos Rancheros off the brunch menu. They arrived 45 minutes later, and I wish with all my heart that the wait had been much, much longer. The eggs were a deathly grey, the bacon almost inedible, the avocado lifeless. The concoction was completely tasteless, and exuded a watery, greasy liquid that makes me tremble to think of even now. The only consolation to take from the meal is that I ate it several hours ago and still haven’t succumbed to food poisoning, which is a good sign.

I didn’t take any photographs of the food (it would have been cruel to inflict them on you), but the presentation was the worst I’ve seen in a restaurant – the food was so viscerally ugly that even the Tate Modern would think twice about hanging it on their walls.

The experience was further blighted by the behaviour of the couple who sat on the table directly opposite me, smack bang in my line of sight. Now, I am the furthest thing from prudish or puritanical. Nor am I a killjoy by nature – the sound of birds chirping or the sight of a new born babe grinning both bring light into my life.

But this couple, evidently in the first flush of a particularly soppy sort of romance, spent the entire meal kissing, muzzling, stroking and petting each other. For long periods of time he just gazed into her eyes, their noses touching, and didn’t even say a word. When the food arrived, things were a little better, because they occasionally broke off eating each other’s faces to eat some actual food, although, of course, he couldn’t resist spoon-feeding her guacamole as if she was a baby, and then dispensed with the spoon all together, and just pushed little pieces of fajita into her mouth with his spindly, hairy fingers. She cooed and batted her eyelashes in response.

Turning to my sister, I tried to analyse what is so infuriating about this sort of behaviour. Is it the wanton exhibitionism? The refusal to acknowledge any distinction between public and private acts? Is it the arrogance of trying to broadcast to everyone in sight that you are in the grip of a deeper, more powerful love than they are? Perhaps it is just the sickly wetness of character it reveals.

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I cannot blame Cielo Blanco for the behaviour of these two repellent love-birds. But I can blame them for serving hideous food at a glacial pace, and for making my quest to locate a great Mexican restaurant seem more hopeless than ever.