Review by Collette Dyson
Going by the number of diners we saw during our recent visit to Pho, it would seem that this new Vietnamese restaurant has filled a gap for quality Asian cuisine in the Exeter foodie scene. Pho fits so seamlessly into the new Queen Street restaurant development, one would be forgiven for barely noticing the absence of the building’s previous occupant ‘Polpo’. Add into the mix the fact that Vietnamese food is generally considered to be one of the healthiest cuisines around, and we reckon that Pho might just go the distance..
Pho was founded in June 2005 by Stephen and Juliette Wall. While traveling in Vietnam, the couple fell in love with the culture and its fabulous cuisine and vowed to recreate the exotic fare back home. Now Pho boats over 27 branches throughout the UK and appears to be ticking all the right boxes with fans of Asian flavours.
We booked a table at 6pm on a Thursday evening and were surprised to find that the restaurant was already buzzing when we arrived a touch earlier than planned. Amongst the clientele we observed solo diners, couples, large groups and families of all ages. In fact, judging by the relaxed atmosphere, pretty much anyone who enjoys street food would likely feel at ease in this eatery. The decor is basic but trendy, with painted brick and wood-clad walls, tasteful street art and a blend of moody and neon lighting.
Pho’s Manager Stewart explained how the kitchen prides itself on cooking food from scratch (with the exception of making their own ice cream) and told us that their fabulous broths take around 12 hours to reach their potential and only then, after passing a strict taste test, are they given the thumbs up.
For dinner, we opted to try a selection of dishes between us. We started with three dishes: Muc chien gion (Tender fried baby squid with a salt, pepper and lime dip – £6.95); Nem hai san (A large crispy spring roll of king prawn, crab & pork with nuoc cham dipping sauce – £4.95); and Banh Xeo (£8.25). The latter, was a savoury Vietnamese crispy crepe, with rice papers and herbs. The portion size was huge and it would have quite easily passed as a main meal. The crepe was packed full of tasty chicken, prawns and vegetables and the idea was to take a piece of the stuffed crepe, wrap it in a sheet of rice paper and dip it into the sweet chilli sauce. We thought all three dishes were honestly delicious, however, all three of us found ourselves reaching for knives and forks, as they proved to be a touch on the messy side.
My husband ordered Pho bo combo for his main (£9.95), a fragrant beefy stock packed full of soft noodles, vegetables and herbs, tender strips of steak and brisket, with soft yummy meatballs and a plate of additional herbs on the side. I was informed that the dish was indeed very tasty, with all the meat being soft and delicious without any gristle in sight.
We also tried the Com Tam dacbiet (£9.75): A rice bowl topped with wok–fried Chinese leaves, radish, cucumber and pickles, finished with peanuts, herbs and fresh chillies. This was a large, vibrant bowl of food that ticked all the boxes. It’s not too dissimilar to a Korean bibimbap and for such a hearty portion, it felt surprisingly light.
For my own main, I opted for the Ca-ri (£10.25): A rich fragrant Vietnamese curry with veggies and mushrooms, topped with nuts and served with broken rice. You can choose from chicken, King prawn, beef brisket or tofu. I chose the Tofu and the dish proved to be right up my street. I found it not dissimilar to Thai curry and the velvety soft, fragrant gravy and crunchy veggies were addictive.
We weren’t quite sure what to expect for dessert at a Vietnamese Restaurant. However, we were particularly impressed by what we were recommended. My husband ordered the Banh Kep La due: A freshly cooked pandan waffle with his choice of ice cream (of which he chose Honey & Ginger). The waffle was crisp and flavoursome (made fresh onsite) and the ice cream was divine.
Meanwhile, I opted to try the Banh so-co-la truffle: A chocolate truffle slab with green tea ice cream. The truffle (which was not dissimilar to a brownie) was lovely and gooey with just the right amount of sweetness, and the green tea ice cream cut through the richness of the truffle nicely.
If our experience of Pho is anything to go by, then we think it’s a winner. Vietnamese street food certainly fills a gap within Exeter’s foodie market and it certainly feels like something the city needed. The staff are friendly and helpful and the the setting is relaxed (you won’t feel out of place sipping the last of your broth from the bowl if you wish). We would definitely recommend a visit to Pho if you’re a fan of East Asian cuisine – you won’t be disappointed.