Food has always been a big part of my life. Growing up was a happy blur of family meals and banter across the dinner table. The Parents love to eat, so it was inevitable that it would be bred into me somehow. We travelled far and ate often.
The true turning point for me, when I definitively knew that I loved food, like really loved food, happened during a school trip to Vietnam in 2006. A three week whirlwind tour of the country left me head-over-heels. Slurping down piping hot bowls of cleansing phở for breakfast, clutching crusty bánh mì on busy sidewalks and risking second-degree burns to little fingers tearing apart crispy bánh xèo. To me, this was heaven.
As luck would have it, The Parents moved to Vietnam the following year and Ho Chi Minh City became my second home. Opportunity knocked and nothing could stop me. Bún chả, gỏi cuốn, bánh bèo. I was a woman possessed.
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The days of freely roaming the streets of Saigon on a whim in search of one delicious bite after another are gone. The Parents returned to Sydney after four years and London has since become my stomping ground. But the food of Vietnam has stayed with me and I am forever searching for that small taste of the past – and the family meals that have become increasingly rare.
It was this search that brought me to Finsbury Park or, more specifically, to Salvation in Noodles, this wet Monday just passed with Food Expectations and Baker Yee. This would be my second visit. I only mention this because whilst I love travelling for food, I do not enjoy travelling across town for food. Traffic is the bane of my life and I would rather shove bamboo under my fingernails than get on the tube at peak hour. What I am trying to say is: the trip is worth it.
We were seated in one of the cosy banquettes and quickly got to work on the cocktail list (it was London Cocktail Week, after all). I settled on a gin-based concoction with elderflower liqueur and cucumber. It was light and refreshing. Had it not been a Monday, I would have sipped on them all night long. Damn my self-restraint!
As far as food goes, we left ordering in the capable hands of Colin (restaurant owner), who knew how to feed us well and keep us happy.
First up was pork and prawn bánh xèo – a new dish that the kitchen were testing and is not yet available on the menu. It was nothing short of absolutely awesome. In fact, for me, it was the standout dish of the night. The pan-fried batter was perfectly crisp and the filling struck a great balance between savoury, meaty pork and sweet, bouncy prawns. Absolutely delicious when wrapped in lettuce with carrot, cucumber and mint, finished with a quick dip of nước chấm. Colin will need to ban me from his establishments for my own good once this becomes a menu staple. An addictive personality never ends well for anyone.
Next up were the wings…the wings I willingly trekked across town for. Tossed in fish sauce and crispy shards of garlic, they were salty, sweet, savoury, crunchy and juicy all at the same time. These are some of the best wings you will get your sticky fingers on in London – I dare you to tell me otherwise.
Dumplings were quick to the table. I am a huge sucker for dumplings, but I have to say these came across as a little boring given the previous acts were hard to follow. Nevertheless, they were tasty pork-filled bites and I really enjoyed the crunch afforded by the inclusion of water chestnuts in the mix. Chopped scallions and cilantro added freshness, whilst crispy shallots brought some additional texture. The chilli oil wasn’t too spicy for me either (said the worst Asian ever).
Food Expectations was pining for gỏi cuốn, more commonly known as Vietnamese summer rolls, so these were next to be devoured. It is hard to go wrong with these and thankfully I was not let down. The prawns were lightly grilled, adding a touch more flavour and texture, and the included herbs were predictably bright and refreshing. A delicious mouthful when paired with Colin’s perfectly balanced nước chấm (which I infinitely preferred to the hoisin dipping option I was given on my previous visit).
Onto the more substantial options, we had bún nem nướng, or grilled pork patties with vermicelli. A clean mix of fresh herbs and vegetables with juicy, flavourful pork. I silently wished it was warm and sunny outside. This would make the perfect summer bowl.
Our last savoury dish, and my favourite of the two, was Mì Quảng – a specialty noodle dish from the central Vietnamese province of Quảng Nam. Salvation in Noodles is one of the only places in London you will find this warming bowl of goodness and this was certainly one of the best renditions I have tasted. The rice noodles are cooked in turmeric, giving them a satisfying yellow glow. Despite being beyond full at this point, my chopsticks kept finding their way into the intensely flavoured broth, fishing out pieces of meltingly tender braised pork belly, succulent prawns and soft boiled egg.
Food Expectations, ever the sweet tooth, could not move past dessert and quickly settled on a scoop of both salted caramel and praline ice cream. Protests against sugary treats aside, I grabbed a spoon and fought for my fair share.
I secretly hate Colin for situating both of his restaurants on the opposite side of London and forcing me into that dark, crowded hole that is the tube network. But for bringing me good food at reasonable prices, that also reminds me of family and sense of place, I love him. I am only one of many fans, but I am a big one. And Colin, I have only two requests: (1) pleaseee come closer to home; and (2) get bánh xèo on the menu ASAP.
Salvation in Noodles
2 Blackstock Road, London, N4 2DL