Returning from the trip of a lifetime to Vietnam with an intense passion for their food, I had no desire to eat it once back in England. I have often fallen foul of the trying to “recreate the holiday back home” with bottles of local wines which without the Mediterranean sea and a warm summer breeze seem more fitting for drain cleaning.
The tiny Bistro Saigon on Railway Road, Ilkley, has, apparently, a fierce reputation with locals, sanctioned by a wait of several weeks for a table on a Friday or Saturday night. Head chef and owner Loc Bui was born and raised in Saigon, and his bistro menu promises family recipes from generations past. Well if that is so, perhaps it was the time I risked visiting to see if the hype was, in fact, right.
The decor at Bistro Saigon is more reminiscent of Europeanised eateries in Saigon or Hanoi with the only nod to Vietnam in a photo of world heritage site Halong Bay, a few orchids and flickering candlelight. There’s a well-stocked bar that sadly does not have Vietnamese beers but has offerings from neighbouring Thailand. They do have a respectable wine list, something hard to find in Vietnam – and when you do it is astronomically expensive.
Drinks were not what I worried about, though, it was the food. Vietnamese food is light, clean and entirely dependent on freshness. The delicate balance of sweet and sour is so essential to the food and needs careful consideration and an experienced hand. Let’s hope Loc has one.
Prawn crackers with a dipping sauce on our table did not bode well as, for me, they belong in a Chinese restaurant, and there was a flash of disappointment before I was even seated. The menu, however, is reassuringly familiar and neatly separated into both meat and vegetarian starters and mains. For those, like me, who struggle to choose when faced with an enticing menu, there is a platter of five starter dishes of your choice that serves two or more people (£7.95 per person). That was easy.
For our platter, we chose vegetable fried spring rolls, a must-have, and these were as good as any I had eaten. The casing was grease-free, the inside fresh, with whisper-light vermicelli noodles and crunchy, flavourful vegetables. The accompanying fresh spring rolls are not my favourite of the two though I did appreciate the soft rice paper wrapper, fat meaty prawns and mint leaves, it is simply the texture where I struggle. Not so across the table, he loved them.
Crispy, sweet potato patties more resembled tempura vegetables, all light and crispy and came with a luscious Hoisin sauce. But, it was the beef and green papaya salad that stopped us in our tracks. One mouthful and we looked at each other; here was the flavour combination unique to Vietnamese food that we love. The marriage of the beef, the shreddings of unripe papaya, a hint of fish sauce (the mother condiment of Vietnam) coriander, mint and bean sprouts are heaven on the plate. Finally on our platter was another salad but with an entirely different combination of poached tiger prawns on crispy noodles with grated mooli, carrots, herbs, chillies and peanuts. Delicious.
I so wished someone had warned me that the starter plate would be so good and so filling as I then struggled with the main. Mango with mooli, seabass and oriental greens was a faultless dish and what I managed to eat, sublime. Again, a carefully crafted balance of sweetness coming from the mango, fishiness from the bass and a welcoming change of texture from the mooli and the greens.
Caramel, ginger chicken came as stated with tender chicken bathed in a sticky sauce and with any cloying sweetness knocked back by the ginger.
To not clash with all the lightness and flavour of my dinner thus far, I did not want dessert. Anyhow, desserts are not big in Vietnam save for a little fresh fruit. However, for many Brits, dinner is not complete without one, so the pudding menu here panders to our palate and especially for the man across the table. He quietly devoured – he liked it so much – a banana and coconut crumble with lime custard. I had my doubts on this one but seeing the pleasure the pudding so obviously brought, what do I know?
Driving home, we commented on the success of the dinner. From the exact, friendly service to the great food and particularly on how it is possible to eat so much yet not feel in the least stuffed; a feeling we remembered so well when travelling in Vietnam. Loc Bui has replicated it exactly here in Ilkley. What a gem of a place. Good luck in trying to get a table.
Bistro Saigon, 1A Railway Road, Ilkley, LS29 8HQ, Tel: 01943 817999. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 11.30am-2pm and 6pm-late; Sunday, 12-2.30pm and 6-8.30pm. Dinner for two with two glasses of wine £68.