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.

Restaurante Paixa

Address: Ac. Particular 47, 8135 Almancil, Portugal
Bookings: booked
Day: Thursday
Meal: dinner
Price: £££
Rating: 6.5/10

Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 17.48.54With the golden sunshine beginning to lose its fierce afternoon intensity, we wound our way in a taxi through the leafy, tree-lined roads of Vale do Lobo, in search of Paixa, a Portuguese tapas restaurant that enjoys a considerable reputation in the Algarve.

Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 17.50.46Given the Portuguese habit for eating dinner in the middle of the night, we were the only people in the restaurant when we arrived at 8pm, and were ushered to our seats in the garden at the back. It was a lovely setting for dinner, perfectly manicured trees ringing the restaurant, a warm breeze dancing across the tables, and, as darkness fell, flickering torch light illuminating the scene.

Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 17.51.01The menu was a smorgasbord of delights, every line of it containing some tantalising dish that makes you wish for an ever replenishable reservoir of hunger: pheasant terrine, duck foie gras, fresh goats cheese with tomato and basil, salmon mousse, roast beef. Given our normal habit of ordering freakish amounts off the menu, eating ourselves into a food coma, and then cancelling all evening plans and crawling back to our hotel room, it took all of our self-discipline to order only 8 tapas dishes, which was still twice the recommended amount.

Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 17.49.41We kicked things off with a cup of sheep’s cheese, uncured and with the texture almost of butter, which we spread over bread studded with small pieces of chorizo. As an aficionado of pork scratchings, I ordered a side dish of fried pork fat, much to the horror of partner in culinary crime. They were delicious, the second-best pork scratchings I’ve ever eaten, ceding top spot only to A. Gold, an inconspicuous sandwich shop in Spitalfields Market that serves the best scratchings in London.

Meanwhile, my partner was tucking into some blue fish, which were sharp and vinegary, but ultimately a little disappointing, lacking that spark of the best tapas, and the meat a little thin and watery.

Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 17.49.09The mushrooms, stuffed with iberico ham and onion, were a highlight, the mushrooms buttery, softly cupping their contents.  A tuna loin with a crisped exterior, a melting heart, on a bed of tomatoes, was awesomely fresh, although we were starting to flag a little. An uninspiring side salad sat unloved on the corner of the table, a few green leaves and uncooked mushrooms not offering much that you couldn’t get from grabbing a handful of grass from the garden.

By this time, the restaurant was humming with people, both local and expatriate. The crowd was young, elegant and attractive, and we blended in with ease…

Screen Shot 2017-08-04 at 16.52.03All in all, Paixa is a good restaurant with a relaxing, convivial feel to it. It is certainly worth a visit if you’re in the Algarve. But the dishes lacked that killer twist that the very best tapas has. Everything was fresh, everything was done well, but nothing left us astonished, and writing this blog a few days later, no one single dish has seared itself onto my culinary memory.

Dining in Portugal

Screen Shot 2017-07-30 at 18.20.54This week, Life at the End of a Fork is coming to you from The Algarve, Portugal. With London no longer able to contain our culinary explorations, we have struck out across the ocean (leapt on a Ryanair flight) and arrived on the southernmost tip of Portugal.

Now, there is a certain sort of diabolical coastal restaurant that springs up in towns catering to large volumes of tourists. They tend to have enormous boards outside with faded photographs of stale looking burgers, or rubbery eggs that a dog could use as a chew-toy, whilst swarthy looking waiters strut along the pavement trying to coax passersby to part with their money. 

Within, they serve food that makes you feel as if the chef has hated you his entire life, and has been waiting until this very moment to seek vengeance for something you have long forgotten. It is the sort of food you feel ill watching someone else eat, that a Little Chef on the side of the M6 would be ashamed to serve.

Screen Shot 2017-07-30 at 18.31.24During our holiday to Cyprus, last year, we naively blundered into many such places, and by the end of the trip we swore that should we venture down to Southern Europe again, we would come well-researched. And so here we are.

Over the course of the next week, we will be dining in some of the finest restaurants that The Algarve has to offer. But all these are ahead of us.

Screen Shot 2017-07-30 at 18.21.05Last night we made do with the Hilton Hotel’s poolside grill restaurant, which served reasonable food, and offered great views, if you enjoy watching fat people fall off sun-loungers.

I ordered a salad with halloumi to start things off, which was passable, although the enormous slabs of halloumi were slightly burnt. My partner in culinary crime ordered a salmon and shrimp tartare. As far as I understand it, ‘tartare’ typically indicates raw food, so we both a little perplexed when the salmon and the shrimp arrived thoroughly cooked.

My grilled lamb was tasty and tender, whilst my partner’s steak was well-done on the outside and literally raw on the inside. Perhaps they got their tartares the wrong the way round…

On to bigger and better things!