I am so very excited. Why? Crystal Palace finally has a superb Vietnamese cafe/restaurant, just a stone’s throw from my house. Hurrah! And the whole neighbourhood seems thrilled to be able to say ‘welcome’ to Urban Orient, which has been packed to the rafters ever since it opened its doors. It houses a once-unloved site that used to be a drab, smelly kebab joint, and has filled the place with happy vibes and delicious food.
I have travelled to Vietnam and so of course am biaised when I say that I believe Vietnamese food to be the best in all of South East Asia. I am always hooked by the crisp and zingy flavours, the subtle mixtures of sourness and zestiness in the dipping sauces, the abundance of fragrant fresh herbs, pungent ‘umami’ of the fish sauce and soothing flavours of anise and caramel. It’s less sweet and heavy than Thai food, and to my palate much more exciting.
The cafe offers a bewitching atmosphere that is reminiscent of some of the arty cafes I went to when I was in Hanoi’s old town several years ago. (Pretentious? Moi?) The owners have tastefully decorated the space with a huge carved wooden mural filling up one entire wall, and eclectic touches such as old typewriters, tea chests and standard lamps. Vietnamese music burbles away gently in the background, and the menu is simple and unpretentious. Oddly, the owners choose not display the menu in the window, so you have to go inside and ask what’s good to eat that day – which might deter some customers – but on a Saturday night the place is full.
You can buy special ‘banh mi’ Vietnamese baguette sandwiches until 5pm, and the evening menu comprises staples such as noodle soups, chopped noodle salads and Chinese dim sum. It’s simple, good and flavoursome. The quality of the food isn’t as bombastic as that served in the Vietnamese restaurants on the Kingsland Road in East London, but Urban Orient have definite skill in the kitchen and I’m sure that once they have been open longer they will have refined their dishes a little. The food is a little light on the fresh herbs that are commonplace in Vietnamese dishes, and condiments such as fish sauce and chopped chillies could be offered on all the tables so you don’t keep having to ask for top-ups. But these are small details, and essentially the food is really good.
This is what we ate:
Steamed Dim sum – packed with pork and prawns, really delicious:
‘Bun’ noodles with lemongrass beef, salad, fresh herbs and fish sauce dressing – could have done with a few more fresh herbs, more fish sauce and less raw onion:
The eclectic decor – what a lovely space for chilling out!
The restaurant currently doesn’t have an alcohol license, and neither does it allow BYO, which they reassured me they’ll be changing soon. (Not least because London is a city of drunkards!) But you can grab a lovely Vietnamese-style coffee, complete with its unique cup filtering system and splash of caramelly condensed milk. I find the name ‘Urban Orient’ a rather strange choice for this laid back cafe because it sounds a little more suited to a generic fast food noodle chain. If I had my way, I would call it something more befitting its bohemian atmosphere, such as ‘Old Hanoi’ or something. No matter – I will be returning to try the fresh summer rolls, the squid and lemongrass salad, the banh mi baguette sandwiches, the pho noodle soup and the Vietnamese curries…
74 Westow Street
London SE19 3AF
Want to try a really special Vietnamese pork stew? Make this delicious Pork Stew in Clay Pot recipe.