When I first found the Vietnamese restauarants of London's East End I fell in love. They were my first experience of the country's cuisine and I was smitten from day one. The zing of lime, the heat of chili, the pungency of fish sauce and the freshness of herbs combined into a cacophany of flavour that was familiar yet altogether different from anything I'd had before. Fast forward a few years and I was lucky enough to spend a month in Vietnam, travelling north to south the entire length of the country and getting to eat all the dishes, and more, than I'd fallen for back home. This was a blessing but also a curse. Upon returning to London all my favourite Shoreditch haunts suddenly weren't as nice as I remembered. Chilies had lost their heat, lime it's zing, fish sauce was altogether less pungent and herbs were limp. I still enjoyed most of them, don't get me wrong, but it was like my window into Vietnamese cuisine needed a damn good clean.
One restaurant that continued to shine though was Viet Grill, so when I heard recently (and by recently I mean about 11 o'clock this morning) they had opened Keu, a banh mi shop, I was over there like a flash. Two tube lines and 7 stations later I was stood in front of a rather nice looking building. Stepping inside the dark wood, dark tile and exposed brick should have been far more imposing than it was but the full-size front windows left a lovely, bright space. The large counter concealed trays full of ingredients and stacks of banh mi & croissants, the numerous staff stood in front of shelves of srichacha & mayonnsaise (the Japanese Kewpie, which surprised me) and a stainless steel trolley proudly hanging a pair of roast ducks.
First impressions were good and a glance at the menu did nothing to change this. To go with the banh mi a selection of rice based dishes were available, a salad section concealing the de facto summer rolls. To wash it all down there are fresh juices and smoothies, coffee (Vietnamese and more usual preparations) or some bottled beverages, Fentimans springs to mind. If this wasn't enough a black board listed daily specials, both rice based and extra banh mi fillings. There was food and drink galore.
I have trouble making my mind up at the best of times, although it was made easier as it was banh mi that had bought me here. I decided to cover as many bases as possible and ordered the Keu Banh Mi - with its pork belly, Vietnamese luncheon meat and chicken liver pate - and took my seat. The sandwich I was presented with was a thing of beauty, the dark golden bread concealing plenty of meat with cucumber, coriander and pickled vegetables providing some of my 5-a-day. Upon taking a bite my first impressions were the bread was verging on one of those crusty ones from Europe, the crumb had the light airiness one expects in a banh mi but the crust was thicker than I remember them being over there, requiring a bit more of a bite to get through. Once I was through it though the sandwich was very well balanced, chewy rind on the pork belly giving way to creamy fat and soft meat, chicken liver pate pulling the whole thing together with its richness. The sprinkling of Maggi on the pickled vegetables didn't go unnoticed either.
I decided I wanted to pep up the heat so went for the srichacha on my table, which I noticed was the US made Rooster brand rather than something imported from Vietnam. With Japanese mayonnaise, Californian chili and the French-feeling bread the purist in me was starting to play up a bit but in the battle between it and my tastebuds in the end the tastebuds won - the simple fact was this was a very, very tasty sandwich. As I sat typing notes on my phone I really didn't want it to end and the mouthfuls got smaller and smaller as I tried to delay the inevitable, in the end I ordered some summer rolls too in an attempt to drag out my time there but whilst tasty they weren't more banh mi. For that I am going to have to return, which I will.
332 Old Street