Pho, Edinburgh, review - is the St James Quarter's new Vietnamese restaurant hot or not?
On my table, it’s the cretaceous period.
There is a terror of tyrannosaurus-rexes, with three battling it out near the bottle of Sriracha and squid sauce.
There’s also a rare hot pink brachiosaurus and a tiny diplodocus, who has a felt tip pen mark on his foot.
They all belong to my two-year-old nephew, who is heavily into dinosaurs - or, as he calls them dino-ROARS.
It seems a bit strange, playing with these effigies of extinct creatures on the fourth floor of one of Edinburgh’s most modern shopping centres, the St James Quarter.
I wonder if there are fossils, way beneath the asteroid-sized footprint of this venue, in this city with its extinct volcano.
The hero dish of pho in this family-friendly chain restaurant, which has 34 branches throughout the UK, is probably a mere couple of hundred years old.
Although like many traditional dishes, its history is uncertain, it may originate from French Colonial times in Vietnam, and the name derive from the term for beef stew, pot-au-feu.
The French occupied Vietnam from 1858 to 1885, calling it, along with Laos and Cambodia, French Indochina. Although cows were traditionally working animals in Vietnam, the incomers popularised beef, and the use of that meat possibly found its way into a traditional Southeast Asian soup. In its city of origin, Hanoi, it’s most often eaten for breakfast.
And it is pronounced “fuh”, though they're too nice at this venue to correct you if you get it wrong.
Anyway, dinosaurs would love it. Apart from the vegan stegosaurus.
The biggest t-rex dips its muzzle into the thick peanut sauce that comes with the set of two summer rolls (£5.95), which have their translucent wraps cut in half and are full of spongy chicken, mint, rice and carrot. They’re a bit less delicate than the ones I’ve had in Edinburgh’s excellent independent Vietnamese House, Pho Viet or Sen.
We also go for the baby squid (£7.75), which almost sets me off on a rendition of baby shark, doo-doo-doo-doo-doo. Luckily, I’m not that much of a glutton for punishment. These nibbly little off-cuts are coated in a pale and light Monster Munch coloured batter, and come with a zingy salt, pepper and lime dip. Pretty good.
As far as mains go, their house pho (£12.25) is clearly the best thing. The coppery soup is fragrant, garlicky, and light, with flat pho rice noodles, and a decent shoal of prawns, along with steak strips, that springy compressed chicken and spring onion. The chicken and prawn wok fried noodles (£10.25) are decent too, with pale slippery ribbons that are coated in a sweet lemongrass and chilli sauce, and topped with spring onions, pak choi and green beans. Only two prawns in the mix though, but I suppose they’re singular on the menu, so we had twice as many as promised.
Our beef brisket hot and spicy soup (£10.75) is served with a choice of bun or pho noodles. We go for the skinny vermicelli bun - all tangled at the bottom of this beefy broth, underneath the fronds of lemongrass and meaty fibres. There's a chilli shrimp mixture in a ramekin on the side, which we scrape into the soup to give it its oomph and leave it speckled red like a dragon egg.
Both the soupy dishes come with a side dish of bean sprouts, lime, mint and coriander.
Probably the least exciting main course is the chargrilled pork rice bowl (£10.95).
“Make sure to stir it up,” says the waiter, and I do, but I want something saucy to jazz up the rice contingent. The coin-like pieces of pork have pleasantly charred and salty edges but are a bit dry, though I do like the pickled bits of carrot and radish, and there’s chilli hoops, crumbled peanuts, coriander and cucumber to work my way through. I add a squirt of squid sauce to lubricate.
The kids menu (£5.50) here is great, with more than just chicken nuggets, though there are those too. My toddler nephew goes for them, and they come with veggies and prawn crackers. They get a drink - lemonade, in this case - and there are versions of the grown-up dishes, like the mini pho, which my eight-year-old niece chooses.
The persuasive dinosaurs also insisted that these two get chocolate ice-cream (an extra £1 each) and share it with them.
They have a sugar high. One of the brontosaurus parades around with a mint leaf as a hat, and the pink brachiosaurus has mounted a t-rex and is riding around on its back.
You can’t take them anywhere, though they do seem to like it here.
If you’re looking for a healthier chain restaurant, it’s not quite as hot as the cretaceous period, but nearly.
St James Quarter
(0131 590 223, www.phocafe.co.uk)
How much? Lunch for three adults and three children, £70.90
Places to try Nearby
Try the naturally produced wines, which are available by the glass or bottle, at this wine bar, where they offer a five course tasting menu or a la carte. Dishes include monkfish stew with fermented fava beans.
If the St James Quarter is looking too busy, then snag a table at this new restaurant. It offers pizza, tacos, curry and breakfast pastries, not necessarily all at the same time.
This is this Glasgow and Edinburgh burger restaurant’s flagship, where you can order pretzel bites with truffle drip, poutine and their signature burgers, which include Sunshine on Beef.
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