Freelance travel writer and Policy Adviser for the UK government living in Brixton. View my blog www.my-big-fat-carbon-footprint.blogspot.com for ethical and budget travel inspiration
Published March 25th 2013
Give Vietnamese food a try in Hackney
A review of this restaurant must be written and published on Weekend Notes, not only in an attempt to dissuade visitors from eating at Green Papaya, but also in an attempt to (and I fully admit stealing this wonderful quote from the children's animated film Ratatouille) help critics to gain a 'healthy dose of perspective'. Green Papaya on Mare Street has been voted the best Vietnamese restaurant in London according to Time Out in both 2011 and 2012.
The first time we visited on a quiet Saturday evening, the food was good, but nothing spectacular. I had my first Banh Xeo (a crisp, Vietnamese coconut milk and rice flour pancake) which made it a memorable event for me. Other than that, I didn't really think much of it. The papaya salad however danced on my palate and made magic with my taste buds: it was sour, gently spicy, crunchy and fresh. After reading extravagant and pondering reviews from members of the public and restaurant critics alike, we decided to head back to Green Papaya to check it out again. It had been a good 6 months since our last visit, but we were in the area buying tofu-a standard weekend day trip!
The thing we noticed last time was that the room was cold. We kept our coats on last time and again this time. It is also incredibly sparsely decorated, not in a minimalist cool way, but in a 'we need to save money' way. The waiting staff look bored out of their minds and actively talk about you as they stand by the bar. One of the surliest waitresses I have ever encountered wore a t-shirt that stated 'I'm no angel'. No truer sentiment could be expressed. She was miserable and uncomfortably punctual and efficient in clearing away our plates, as if trying to usher us out.
My first qualm with this restaurant, the 'best place to eat Vietnamese food in London' was that half of the food we ate tasted as though it had not been made on the premises. And by this, I mean that the soup had the gelatinous texture of something upended out of a can and I had seen similar spring rolls just moments before in the Vietnamese supermarket next door: £7.99 for a sack of cigar-thin vegetarian bites. They were overcooked, and, if I wasn't mistaken, full of meat, which was sad considering that I am vegetarian. There was no way I was going to eat them anyway, so I left them to my boyfriend. My suspicions that the food was not freshly prepared were aroused when I asked the unpleasantly brusque waitress if I could have some tofu in my summer rolls, rather than prawn.
No absolutely not. We cannot change. It is how they are." This statement of refusal could refer to one of two things. Either the recipe is centuries old and so delicious and so fresh and so perfect with prawns that to change the ingredients would be heresy to the memory of her grandmother/great aunt/learned teacher. Or because they too came out of a bag from the Vietnamese supermarket next door. Let us assume with good faith that it was the former. Her reply was in direct contrast to the staff at Mien Tay, an excellent Vietnamese restaurant on Kingsland Road, who, although a little short on words are courteous, eager to please and always change the prawns in the summer rolls for tofu even though it's not on the menu. How do they manage such a feat? They make them fresh.
The hot and sour soup arrived and by God I wish it hadn't. It was brown and shiny, two things you should never wish for in a soup and had some lumps of things floating in it that were indistinguishable. Even my boyfriend, who would normally eat anything pushed it away and pretended it wasn't on the table. The papaya salad was morose looking and served with a slice of lemon. Obviously, I'm not Vietnamese but I'm sure that one of the key components to a Papaya Salad is lime. This adds a kick of sourness and piquancy to the salad to combat the palm sugar in the dressing. A slice of lemon hastily taken from behind the bar is unlikely to replace the 3-4 limes that all the recipes I've seen for this dish call for. The crushed peanuts on top were the highlight of the dish: the rest of the salad was bland and tasted essentially like raw vegetables with a slice of lemon squeezed over it. Thankfully, we can label this restaurant as an unpretentious one: clearly what you see is what you get.
This theme was continued into the main course. The descriptor 'vegetable curry' was vague, but at least I automatically could guess its taste by looking at the plate. It was a plate of overcooked vegetables (soggy enough to suggest that they came from a freezer bag of arbitrary vegetables normally destined for a side of a roast dinner-presumably it was on offer after Mother's Day) sinking sadly into some brown gloop. The courgette and parsnip seemed to be calling to me: "I didn't ask for this. This doesn't look like beef gravy." They cried as they were submerged into the 'curry' sauce.
The sauce tasted like the smell at the back of an Oriental Supermarket. There is a specific mustiness to oriental supermarkets and healthfood shops which also manifests in the smell of Chinese Five Spice; a taste that I have never had the misfortune to come across in Asia. To my chagrin it had also taken up residence as the lead-flavour in my 'curry'. This rendered it inedible to anybody who had at least partial control of their olfactory senses.
The Banh Xeo pancake was okay. The filling was okay. When the bill came we rejected the chocolates that came on our tray - who the heck eats After Eights after Vietnamese food? In Mien Tay the (far cheaper and tastier) meal starts with complementary prawn crackers and ends with a small plate of fresh and juicy fruit. Although I appreciate that the staff have made an attempt to help me rid the taste of their food from my mouth as quickly as possible (though I found that a stiff drink did just the job thanks), an after-dinner chocolate mint is as incongruous as the roast dinner vegetables in my curry.
The whole place feels cheap, money-pinching and cold. Do yourselves a favour, go to Kingsland Road and go to Mien Tay or Viet Hoa. This place just isn't worth the effort and is an affront to the excellent Vietnamese Food that is currently being served in London.