Can you match wine with Vietnamese food? I was sceptical. It would take some skill to find wines capable of standing up against all those strong flavours but Willie Lebus from Bibendum has managed it, very well.
Willie has been working with Mien Tay to produce their new (and first) wine list, launching in October. This means that BYO will be phased out after a month or so but all the wines are extremely good value and as Willie pointed out, customers will be able to enjoy a wine that actually works with the food rather than dodging the various pitfalls involved in bringing your own.
The food at Mien Tay makes you happy to be alive. It blows the cobwebs away. We started with an appetiser of deep-fried bass, beautifully presented; individual mouthfuls tangled with chilli, bean sprouts and spring onion shreds, heavily scented with ginger. When the meat was gone, our hosts invited us to try the fried bones so I snapped off a piece of backbone: gelatinous and full of extra flavour.
A steamed bass with ginger, spring onion and soy was, we couldn’t believe, even better and so perfectly cooked it drew gasps of admiration. This was our first food and wine match and the point where I ate my words; the Alois Lageder Pinot Grigio had enough acidity to cope with the salt of the sauce but no face-puckering sourness. These are quality wines, first and foremost.
Fresh mango salad with dried beef was astonishing. Chewy jerky-like shreds tossed with slightly under-ripe mango was salty and sweet, juicy with lime and fish sauce, exploding with aniseedy Thai basil flavour. A more perfect mix of textures can surely not exist; chew from the meat, soft fruit, crunchy peanuts. At one point the poor waitress thought we’d finished and attempted to clear the plate away. That didn’t happen twice. I thought that the matched wine however (my only criticism of the wine all night) ‘Picpoul de Pinet’ was overshadowed by the mighty salad, as much of the lemon zestyness and Mediterranean fruit flavours were lost.
A green papaya salad in the same style was even better than the mango version; a lamb dish thrummed with fragrant lemongrass and salt and pepper squid came cased in a greaseless batter, burning mouths which couldn’t wait to gobble it up. Spring rolls were fried with the same skill and accompanied by fresh parilla leaves (shiso), which I adore. We tried to describe their flavour – like a cross between mint, aniseed and oregano.
I’m still a total novice when it comes to writing about wine but what I can say is that almost all we tried slipped down a treat without jarring, which is a pretty amazing achievement considering the force of those flavours – testament to Willie’s skill. I didn’t get to try all of them because after 3 glasses of introductory Prosecco, 5 whites, a rosé and a sherry (try it with the frog’s legs) I had to leave for fear of slumping under the table. There were another four reds to go. It’s late, you’re in a restaurant wearing a conical Vietnamese hat, your face is red, your writing is barely legible any more, you have an early meeting the next morning. It’s time to go home.
I am confident though, that the reds would have gone down just as easily, especially when matched with dishes like stir-fried goat with galangal and grilled quail with honey, garlic and spices. As I’ve said, the wine prices are as appealing as those of the food which reflects the restaurant’s lack of pretension and generous hospitality. A glass of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc for example (elegant gooseberry flavours) costs £3.25 for a glass, £5.50 for a 250ml carafe and £14.50 for a 75cl bottle. The most expensive bottle on our list was a New Zealand Pinot Noir at £20.
I love this restaurant, it’s almost perfect. Most of the food and wine is hard to fault; the people are just really nice; it’s cheap; it’s in South London; it’s, it’s…oh, just go.
180 Lavender Hill
Tel: 020 7350 0721
Thanks to Chris for the slightly scary iphone picture of the fried fish.
The wine list is available from October. I was invited to a preview.