Food service is a shitty term with horrid connotations. I live within spitting distance of most major fast-food chain restaurants and some days the combined smell is enough to turn my stomach. But a surprising number of chain operators exist that buck the trend of producing unhealthy pallid scrot. Home-grown concepts that are lovingly attended and produce food that is affordable, healthy and properly cooked. Pho (pronounced 'fer' FYI), the brainchild of Stephen and Juliette Wall, is one such emerging brand.
Always an admirer of going out on a limb and risking it all, I was impressed to hear that in 2004 the couple resigned from their jobs, stuck everything in storage, rented out their flat and left the country to go traveling around South East Asia with the simple plan of researching a new restaurant concept.
Stephen told me that they weren't certain what cuisine they had in mind so set out to discover whatever was out there. Falling in love with the national dish of Vietnam confirmed their choice. He explained to me that: 'we had to choose pho because of its utter addictiveness, as well as being the soul of the nation and a source of national pride; it's so much more than just a dish'.
Pho is a noodle soup that comes piping hot in a generously sized bowl. Most commonly pho contains beef or chicken and rice noodles in a delicious broth. Accompaniments like basil, bean sprouts and limes come with the dish and are added by the diner. Pho is said to have originated from Vietnamese, French and Chinese origins, one theory being that the classic French pot-au-feu was a European precursor.
I asked Stephen how he feels their concept fits into the UK market with such a strong representation of Vietnamese restaurants run by a large Vietnamese community and whether there is much lost in translation when adapting a traditional cuisine to western palettes. In reply he made it clear that Pho does 'not want to compete with the likes of those on the pho mile (Kingsland Road) but instead occupy the mass market, sitting alongside the Wahacas, Busabas and Wagamamas. We see Pho as a concise operation with a specialised menu that appeals to a wide audience. The only adaptation we have had to make for western tastes is improve the quality of the meat we use. On the street in Hanoi its not unusual to get big lumps of unidentifiable meat in your bowl of pho and we have had to tweak this.'
The Menu at Pho is short and to the point, they concentrate on a few things and do them well. The starters are mainly spring and summer rolls, pork and lemongrass meatballs and Bahn Xeo, a traditional Vietnamese crepe. Mains consist of Gio, a hearty crunchy salad in a variety of flavours and Pho Xao, wok fried flat noodles served with a choice of three toppings - beef, prawn and chicken or tofu and mushroom. Pho, the main event, can be ordered in a variety of combinations and with a load of additional extras, lime, chilli, basil etc. to tweak and customise the pho according to preference. Another noodle dish called Bun Noodles, is a deep filled bowl that comes with fresh herbs, crunchy carrot, mooli and a choice of hot toppings, garnished with roasted peanuts, fried shallots and a veggie spring roll. The last on the list of main courses is a mild and creamy Cari or curry that comes with chicken, prawn or tofu. Prices of all mains are around the £7-9 mark and are ample in size.
The first Pho outpost opened in Clerkenwell in June 2005 but it was not until regulars, Tom and Ed Martin, gastro-pub gurus joined Pho as investors in April 2007 having heard of the Wall's planned roll-out. Their investment enabled the opening of the second site at Great Titchfield Street. Pho now have 5 outlets, with one in Brighton and 2 more units planned to open by the end of the 2011. If Mr and Mrs Wall stick to the original vision and maintain standards there is no reason why Pho can't become a household name with food that is not at all reminiscent of the bilious toot evoked by the sound of food service.