A while ago a lady contacted me about banh mi, saying how she was starting a new Vietnamese food venture in the city and how my banh mi post from Hanoi had inspired her to recreate the pointed ended baguettes of that region when they did. I was more than intrigued so soon as I'd heard it had opened - not from her I should add, but from London Eating - I hopped on the tube and made the rather-long-for-lunch journey from Mayfair to Bank.
Upon entering I was struck by the decor. They've tried to recreate the feel of Vietnam here and, outside of the lack of 35 degree heat and uncomfortable humidity, they have succeeded. I love the sun bleached colonial yellow walls, the handwritten food related Vietnamese messages around the tables and the inclusion of a real life banh mi hawker cart, imported from Vietnam and stuck at the end of the counter, is the kind of attention to detail I like.
On this trip I was mortified to find they didn't have banh mi yet due to a lack of baguettes, my mortification was short-lived though when I turned to the old faithful beef pho, which was a respectable example of this dish. The stock - made themselves - had good flavour, a strong beef aroma and nice aromatics. One of my favourite things about it was the cut of beef which came complete with a little grizzle and fat, maybe not to everyone's taste but I wouldn't want it any other way as it provided variety of texture and flavour and reminded me of Vietnam. I was pleased to find the accompanying sliced red chilies had a bit of heat, which isn't always the case.
My dining companion's rice with char-grilled pork was described as having lots of flavour, a bit of chew but nice and moist. A free salad comes with the main dishes which is basically some pickles, cucumber, coriander and some animal - mine pork and prawn, my friend's chicken - which makes a nice side to the meal. One criticism would be the pickles were a little flat, the vinegar not coming through as much as I would have liked. We shared some summer rolls too which had a good balance of herbs, noodles and prawns, the dip that came with them was an interesting peanut affair that I'd not had before.
Along with the salad all customers were given a free cafe sua da, a cold Vietnamese coffee topped with condensed milk - I'm assuming as an introduction with the hope of repeat trade. Julie has since said they also add fresh milk, to improve the taste for the Western palate, but I was instantly transported to a Hanoi street corner by the chicory overtones of the bean, which is bought from Ca Phe VN on Broadway market. If you've never had one of these before I'd definitely recommend giving it a try.
After my first visit I got in touch with the owner Julie to let her know I'd been, saying I would introduce myself next time, and she invited me back the next day to taste their pre-production banh mi. I could hardly turn down that offer so after work I made my way back across town to see if their dedication to finding the right baguette had paid off. The bread, which is by far the most important thing in a banh mi, was light and fluffy on the inside with a thin, crisp crust - just as it should be. Julie said they'd spoke to a number of Vietnamese bakeries, in Vietnam and abroad, before settling on the recipe which ended up being pure wheat flour, which was in line with other bakeries they'd spoke to. A lot has been said about the importance of rice flour in banh mi but here it's definitely not missed.
I ate all the fillings and favourites where the classic (rolled belly, pate and Vietnamese luncheon meat) and chargrilled pork, the five spice in that setting the banh mi off a treat. Chicken was chicken, beef fragrant with lemongrass and the vegetarian fried tofu with oyster mushrooms surprisingly meaty. Whilst eating I got to meet the family behind it, who were all lovely, and regale them with my tales of eating in Vietnam on my travels. Well sated I left promising I would return for the production item.
I was worried that the location was a bit out the way but having returned now they're fully in operation that doesn't seem a problem, there is no shortage of customers. I needed to try the banh mi proper so ordered the classic (I just can't turn down all those different porcine delights) to see how it compared to my tasters. As before the bread was light and crispy and the fillings crunchy and flavoursome, being a glutton for heat a little squirt of the provided chili sauce takes them another step up. Trying to work my way through the menu a bit the banh mi was joined by some fried spring rolls, nice and meaty with a gorgeously pungent nuoc cham (fish sauce and vinegar based dip).
Having now been twice I'm happy to say City Caphe is definitely doing things to my taste and it won't be long before I hop on the bike again for a Mayfair to Bank lunch time banh mi. A welcome addition to London's burgeoning banh mi scene.
City Caphe, 17 Ironmonger Lane, EC2V 8EY