I’m very excited today. When I’m this giddy, it has to do with one of the following: food, eating, or the anticipation of food and eating.
Tonight, I’m giong up the road, away from the delectable cool of the Northern Quarter’s restaurants, away from the big beefy steakhouses of Deansgate, away from the lovely continental snippets on offer all over central Manchester. I’m going in the opposite direction, towards a little hole in the wall, a bring your own charmpot that more convinces me that I don’t need to pay the airfare to get a taste of Vietnam.
Granted, V-Nam on the Oldham Road doesn’t look like much. It’s slap bang in the middle of a row of what used to be shops when this part of town was cheefully considered a community, but is now replaced by a few high rises and busy stretch of dual carriageway and a place that no-one calls home. The restaurant itself is really a cafe and they haven’t wasted any effort on making you think otherwise; it’s adornement-free, unless you count un-used plug sockets and undistinguishable marks on the wall. The music is always, gratifyingly R n B (think Boyz to Men, not Beyonce) and the whole thing is perfect if you don’t want to be bothered by staff or have your water topped up every two minutes. But, the food, ah the food!
I watched a programme on making pho, which is the national dish of Vietnam, a kind of soupy herby, sweet and sour broth with noodles. In it, Rick Stein had a minor aneurysm perfecting his stock, which involved roasting and boiling bones and herbs for hours. He fussed over the balance of fresh spices, the ratio of noodle to meat. He was happy with the results and gave it, beaming, to a vietnamese woman who took one slurp and declared it ‘too salty’. Stein was crestfallen, but held it together. At least he had come close to slaying the pho dragon.
But the programme convinced me that to make pho, specifically the soup mix, is not something that you can do for two people. You need to make mass quantities to make it worth your while. Which conveniently means that I can go to V-Nam to sample it, where they must make a bath load everyday and leave it simmering on a low heat for me to bathe in. So here’s what I’ll have.
I’ll have hands down the best salt and pepper squid that man has ever tried. Forget about your calamari or your fritto misto; V-Nam serves its squid in big boisterous wedges, battered and seasoned and chilli-d to perfection. Then I’ll have the prawn pho, a cauldron of soup dotted with bouncy pink shrimp, the size of a 50p coin. Most seafood places in Manchester urge you to remortgage your house to eat shellfish, but at V-Nam, they produce wonders for under a tenner. I will add to my soup some noodles, fresh coriander and mint, lime and chilli. Easy on the beansprouts (a personal thing). I will slurp until soup runs freely down my chin.
Then I will sit back and muse on Stein’s efforts, and maybe even feel a little sorry for him. I’ll enjoy it, too: it’s perhaps the only time I’ll ever be able to feel pity for a man who travels the world eating and cooking kick-ass food.