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 February 22nd 2013
Pimlico is not known as a hotbed of gastronomy. It is known as an area of restraint, class and quiet wealth. There is a Pizza Express, a pub specialising in ales (The Cask) and, rather surprisingly, a restaurant called The Mekong. Thanks to the geographical locator in its name, the Mekong, we assumed, was Vietnamese. The Mekong can count among its neighbours a handful of excellent pubs, an impeccable Thai restaurant (Thai Café) and a warm and inviting tap, cheese and wine deli called Gastronomica. Even with these nods to foreign culture, the Mekong does not sit easily on this road of white terraced, stucco houses.
The best Vietnamese restaurants in the London are in the East: Green Papaya in Hackney, VietHoa grill and Mien Tay are places I would happily barter my aunt's life away to get a bite of the summer rolls. Pimlico has never really been renowned for its thriving Vietnamese community.
The Mekong looks like an Italian ristorante circa 1993. You remember the type. Candles stuffed in wine bottles pooling wax onto the uneven wooden table cloths, lights flickering off the exposed red bricks. Except its 2013, and it's meant to be Vietnamese. Their website suggests that you may want to come here to 'admire the Vietnamese artwork' -maybe there was more artwork downstairs, because upstairs there seemed to be an unaccountable number of trailing tendrils from strategically placed pot-plants, presumably in an attempt to hide said artworks from real criticism. The glimpses I got of a few picture frames reassured me that the pot-plants were doing punters a favour.
The service was prompt and friendly, and the menus seemed incongruously well formatted and modern in contrast to the restaurant interior. The menu offered a wide, but not challenging or interesting selection of standard Vietnamese meals. Certainly, it was not an 'exciting' menu as suggested by the website. There seemed to be a few nods across the border to Thailand (for example the Pad Thai and Green Curry). Deciding on what to order was tricky, as the surrounding clientele were talking about their recent safaris and 'Maisie's latest Prada purchase' so fervently that it was difficult to focus on the food choice. I particularly enjoyed one conversation in hushed tones from a girl who was debating whether or not to go to Harvard for her masters degree and was talking to who I assume was her boyfriend's dad, who was American. He had, he assured her, had a great time at Harvard and he was certain that she would too. She just needed to avoid the frat boys.
Our food was delivered almost within minutes: worryingly fast. The summer rolls were good, and the peanut sauce they came with tasty: papery sticky sheets of rice paper dunked into tart yet sweet sauce. We'd also ordered the braised aubergine with chilli paste, garlic and ginger which was by far the best thing we ate that evening. The 'four kinds of vegetables-sautéed' were just downright unpleasant. For one, the name suggests that downstairs is a chef whose sole purpose is dedicated to desperately rifling through the cupboards to find four different legumes-this is quite a big ask. Evidently he was off ill, as I could only count three vegetables, and one of those I'd hazard was an upended tin of briny bamboo shoots covered in soy sauce. It was really nasty.
My meat-eating boyfriend ordered the Goi Ga Loi Thrung Hao, or shredded chicken with garlic.
He declared that it tasted like a Greggs sandwich filler and that it was dry. Mayonnaise would have improved it. With that damning criticism, he then fought me for some more tasty aubergine. The rice was fine, and had been brought in an entertainingly shaped metal container, but even the rice could not soak up the taste of salt and poorly thought out flavour combinations in The Mekong's very own take on Thai Green Curry with Tofu.
I am a Thai green curry glutton. I ate it like an animal in Thailand and I love the versions on the dish around South East Asia. But here, it was weirdly spicy but with no other flavour other than salt. I also got the impression that the sauce had been thickened with flour, which made the sauce grey and slightly gloopy. It was quite far away from living up to its key 'green' descriptor.
We finished the meal, thirst clawing at the back of our throats like a small Thai chef trying to claw back the dignity of Gaeng Kiaw Wan. For two people the bill came to £34, including a glass of wine and a Tiger beer. We paid up reluctantly, and regretted our impulse to 'try out a local' restaurant. Pimlico is good for sedate. It does tasty tapas dishes well. Hell, there's even a great dim sum place just up the road. But anything more adventurous than the usual? Use London's wonderful multicultural network and head to Kingsland Road in Hackney to soak up some true Vietnamese flavours rather than this art gallery cum Thai cum Chinese cum Vietnamese Italian we found in SW1.